A little over a week ago, grubby politics brought an abrupt end to a hard-fought environmental treaty, many years in the making.
The best climate science available pointed a way forward that was roughly fair to all of the parties. The fate of complex ecosystems, and of the people who live in and depend on them, hung in the balance. Scientists advised and citizens pleaded, but to no avail: One rogue government simply walked away from the negotiations, and that was that.
I’m talking about New Jersey, of course. On midnight of May 31, the temporary agreement that governs water use on the mighty Delaware River expired without a renewal after New Jersey refused to sign on. Those hurt most by the Garden State’s betrayal include a bunch of tiny riverfront towns in the Catskills and a number of fish, neither of which have much clout in New Jersey elections.
Since 2007, the parties of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) — Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York State and New York City — have been wrangling over how best to use the river. Each year, they get a little closer to the holy grail: a long-term management plan guided by top-notch science that ensures enough water for everyone, protects the river, and guards against flooding and other natural disasters. For each of the past five years, the parties have signed a one-year extension of a vital temporary agreement, dubbed the Flexible Flow Management Program (FFMP), while they work toward a more permanent future.
Now, with no signature from New Jersey on the temporary agreement, the law of the land has reverted overnight to a plan last updated in 1983 — a long-defunct plan that could devastate the fragile cold-water fisheries of the Delaware, and that leaves the little Catskills towns downstream of New York City’s reservoirs vulnerable to flood and economic crisis. By walking away from the table, New Jersey negotiators have signaled that they would rather turn back the clock on decades of valuable reforms to river management than give an inch of ground.
Battles over water are notoriously fierce. Bureaucrats in the rough-and-tumble world of river management have a saying: whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. But in the stream-fed mid-Atlantic, where too much water is as often a problem as too little, there should be enough to go around.
On its face, what New Jersey wants seems reasonable: more water for economic development. But what New York City wants seems reasonable too, and here, Jersey won’t budge.
At issue is the salt line: a shifting influx of ocean water that moves up and down the mouth of the Delaware. Droughts and sea swells push the salt line miles upstream, where it occasionally threatens the intake systems that feed drinking water from the Delaware River to Philadelphia and New Jersey.
At the moment, New York City is responsible for keeping the salt line at bay. When ocean water creeps too far upstream, the city releases water from its massive upstate reservoirs, flushing the salt line back out toward the sea.
So far, the system has worked to protect the cities that draw their water from the Delaware. The last time the salt line came within reach of a municipal drinking water system was in 1963, during a record-breaking drought. Trouble is, the system is changing. The storms and droughts that push the salt line farther inland are being worsened by climate change — one of the myriad ways in which the impossibly broad problem of global climate is becoming locally specific, inflicting new punishments on cities and towns that weren’t built to weather the new era.
New York City’s water managers fear that in the years to come, with storms and droughts already increasing in ferocity, they may be forced to deplete their drinking water pushing the salt line back. The city wants to share the load. There are flood control reservoirs upstream of the drinking water intakes, maintained by the federal Army Corps of Engineers, and the city wants them to be part of the arsenal.
New Jersey’s environmental commissioner has publicly called the city’s call for sharing the defense of the salt line a “poison pill.” With no public access to the closed-door negotiations over the agreement, it’s impossible to say exactly what happened, but the other four parties have taken the unusual step of issuing a joint letter dragging New Jersey for the breakdown in negotiations.
Adam Bosch, spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, says that New Jersey’s refusal to play ball is an abrupt about-face for a state that’s long been a cooperative member of the DRBC.
“This is the same administration — a lot of the same technical staff — that helped build the FFMP. The commissioner and the executive staff may have changed, but the technical people helped build the program to begin with,” he said. “They put a lot of work into it.”
Now that it is legally 1983 again on the river, New York City is no longer bound by the FFMP. The city is within its legal rights to stop the cold-water reservoir releases that sustain both the Upper Delaware’s trout fisheries and the region’s tourist economy, or to ditch the hard-fought flood control program that helps to protect towns downstream of the reservoirs.
The funny thing is, they’re not going to. City water managers have already negotiated their own agreement with the rest of the parties to protect the Delaware River, even though it doesn’t particularly benefit them. Motivated to do the right thing — stung, perhaps, by decades of playing the role of the big bad villain in countless disputes with towns in their upstate watershed — the NYC DEP announced less than 24 hours after the plan expired that they would voluntarily keep holding up their end of the bargain.
It’s an increasingly interdependent world that we live in, and climate change is making it more so. The problems we face are complex and require collaboration. It only takes one bad-faith actor to destroy years of collaborative work. Every first-year environmental science student learns about the tragedy of the commons: the disaster that ensues when everyone exploits a common resource with resolute, Adam Smith-style selfishness.
But in practice, agreements like the Delaware River plan — much like the river itself — are often more resilient than people give them credit for. The more heavily we all invest in cooperative efforts, the less willing we are to turn our backs on them, even when the price of participation is high.
As at home, so abroad. A thousand efforts of good will both large and small, by government and industry alike, are already underway to uphold the terms of the Paris accord. If what happened on the Delaware is any indication, that work will move forward, even if our nation walks away.
Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.