Fears rise about reservoirs and flooding

Posted: February 13, 2014

NEW HOPE Gail Pedrick remembers when floodwaters rose nearly four feet in her living room - and she's worried it's going to happen again.

Pedrick, 76, whose New Hope home was one of thousands damaged by the swollen Delaware River in 2004, 2005, and 2006, has been carefully eyeing reservoir levels all winter in Upstate New York.

She's worried that the reservoirs - which were filled beyond capacity during those floods - will again be near or beyond capacity later this spring, leaving her and others downstream vulnerable to the sort of surging tides that caused nine deaths and an estimated $70 million worth of damage between 2004 and 2006.

"We're scared," said Pedrick, who has lobbied officials on both sides of the river to request lower storage levels in the reservoirs year-round.

But flooding is a complicated issue, experts say, and data show that floods have occurred regardless of the reservoir levels.

Even with the snow piled up this season, a quick spike in temperature might not spell trouble, they say.

"There's a sense that what happens at those reservoirs is going to make or break whether there is going to be flooding or not going to be flooding," said Clarke Rupert, spokesman for the Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate agency that oversees the river system. "If only it were that simple."

Among the factors that influence flooding, according to Marie Stewart, deputy Delaware River master with the U.S. Geological Survey, are: precipitation; the sequence of storms, such as multiple events occurring close together; the depth of the river base in various areas; and where certain towns lie in the floodplain, which is mapped by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The capacity of the river and the reservoirs, which supply nine million New Yorkers with drinking water, is also an important factor, Stewart said.

Because of that, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered in 1954 that reservoir levels be agreed upon by New York City and four states - Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware - all of which can feel the effects of reservoir levels.

The current agreement, however, is precisely what rankles Pedrick, because it calls for the reservoirs to be full starting in May to hedge against drought and because levels have been teetering between 85 percent and 99 percent capacity this winter.

If powerful storms rage through, Pedrick argues, the reservoirs will pour over upstream, and her living room in New Hope will once again resemble a large, muddy bathtub.

"This is like a cloud over our heads," she said, "when the reservoirs are full."

Data from the National Weather Service and New York City Department of Environmental Protection show that floods can and have occurred without high reservoir levels.

Of the 20 highest crests on record for the Delaware River at Trenton, records show, only five were accompanied by overcapacity reservoirs.

In addition, 10 of the 20 high-water marks came before all three reservoirs were completely full, records show.

But Pedrick cites data as well, noting that the three storms in the mid-2000s - each among the eight highest river levels on record - all had reservoir levels exceeding 105 percent of capacity.

Plus, said Chuck Schroeder, 70, of Hancock, N.Y., some hydrologists have found that the reservoir levels contributed to the surge of water that inundated his log cabin with more than a foot of water in 2005 and 2006.

"You can't prevent flooding," he said. "But you can prevent the flood crests we saw in 2004, 2005, and 2006. They were man-made floods."

In the aftermath of the 2006 flood, Pedrick and others tried to garner support from government officials for lowering the reservoir levels, eventually managing to attract the attention of Gov. Ed Rendell, who successfully requested lower reservoir levels for a few weeks in 2008.

But the efforts did not have a permanent effect, so Pedrick is trying again.

She lobbied the Bucks County Commissioners, who recently issued a resolution asking that the reservoirs be kept at 90 percent capacity year-round.

She has had recent meetings with officials in Hunterdon County, N.J., and with Pennsylvania State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney as well. In fact, McIlhinney issued a memorandum Tuesday saying he was going to introduce a resolution calling on the four states to keep the reservoir levels at 90 percent or below year-round.

Until that happens, however, Pedrick said she would keep fighting. "You can't let this go on."


cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

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