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Visioning the Upper Delaware River Corridor   
Fishing days gone


RIVER VALLEY — The trout-fishing season on the main stem of the Upper Delaware River is over.

Long spells of hot days uninterrupted by rain have kept the waters warm, forcing cold-water-reliant trout out of the Upper Delaware and into its three main tributaries, the east and west branches and the Neversink River.

“At this point it’s not an ecological disaster, but it’s a fisheries disaster,” said Wayne Elliot, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) region 3 fisheries manager.

Elliot said trout-fishing opportunities in the 20 miles of river below Hancock, NY, which normally support the local economy this time of year, have been “severely limited or eliminated.” No major fish kills have occurred, he said, and most of the trout have survived in the refuge areas.

The Upper Delaware Council’s Water Resource Management Committee mulled over the problem last week, and the committee is considering sending letters to fisheries officials in Pennsylvania and New York to request advisories against trout fishing between Hancock and Callicoon, NY.

Elliot said: “The idea that people shouldn’t be fishing there is something I fully support.”

The DEC is authorized to release limited amounts of water from the Cannonsville and Pepacton reservoirs each year to keep the water cool enough for trout, but unusual circumstances have forced officials to use over half of the “thermal banks,” which are allotted on May 1. The volume of the banks was approved last year by the four river basin states and New York City.

This time of year, the DEC aims to release enough water to send a cold-water plume as far south as Hankins, NY, but Elliot said it was obvious by June 1 that the thermal banks would not go so far.

“That obviously takes a lot of water when it’s hot,” Elliot said.

But the weather has not been the only circumstance limiting the DEC’s capacity to cool the river.

The Delaware River Master, Gary Polachuk, is responsible for maintaining a minimum water flow downriver at Montague, NJ, and under normal circumstances he calls for releases from both Cannonsville and Pepacton to meet the target. However, ongoing repairs at the Swinging Bridge Dam have necessitated significant water releases from the Swinging Bridge, Mongaup Falls and Rio reservoirs, and the extra water has kept the river high enough at Montague to eliminate the need for releases from Cannonsville and Pepacton.

“The absence of the river master’s directed releases has really chewed up our bank [of water],” Elliot said, adding that almost all of the water that helped cool the Upper Delaware has come from DEC’s thermal bank.

When the water year begins on May 1, the DEC gets an allocation of 20,000 “CFS days” to meet thermal targets. Each CFS day is the equivalent of one cubic foot flowing continuously past a point for a 24-hour period, Elliot said.

“We’ve used over half,” he said. “There’s something between 8,000 and 9,000 [CFS days] left.”

Regarding the DEC’s capacity to make it through to the end of this water year, April 30, 2006, Elliot said, “That’s a long shot. It’s going to be difficult. We’re discussing alternatives.”

He said the DEC is trying to get emergency authorization from the other basin states and the city to release more cold water, which he called “a loan to get us through what has been a very unusual year.”

But that will be anything but easy. A unanimous vote of approval would be needed from each of the five decree parties.

“It’s fair to say that each state has a different concern and interest. They have to be protective of their own part of the territory,” Elliot said. The implications of such an emergency loan will be worked out at Delaware River Basin Commission meetings.

While the river’s main stem from Hancock to Callicoon has been left to its own devices for the meantime, Elliot said the DEC has been able to meet both flow and temperature targets on the east and west branches and the Neversink.

“Generally speaking, the fishing has been good,” Elliot said of these main stem tributaries. “There are fish in all of these rivers. They’ve been protected and pampered.”

Cold-water fisheries advocates are concerned that the circumstances could invite anglers to fish in the tributaries and cause excessive pressure on the trout populations that have sought refuge, said Dave Soete, senior resource specialist at the Upper Delaware Council.

On the other hand, with the east coast in the midst of hurricane season, a tropical storm could cause a “Blitzkrieg,” Elliot said. “We could be back in the flood mode and all this discussion could be moot.”

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