After a November drought in which New Jersey’s water reserves dipped to low levels, the state resisted renewing the complicated agreement that governs water distribution from the reservoirs, known as the Flexible Flow Management Plan, claiming that its allotment had decreased over the years.

“Right now, we’re the ones who have been shortchanged on water supply,” said Bob Martin, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re the ones with the dog in the fight because New York City won’t give us our fair share of water.” The state says it can now take 65 million gallons a day during drought conditions and is seeking an increase to 85 million gallons.

The water agreement is a result of decades of negotiations that began with a 1954 Supreme Court ruling laying out parameters for how to divide the water. At its simplest explanation, New York City owns and runs the reservoirs and disperses water based on agreements.

By failing to reach a consensus last week, the regulations governing water releases would have reverted to a 1983 agreement, which among other things would have greatly reduced releases from the base of the dams and drastically reduced water levels in estuaries and the Delaware River. New York City, however, offered a last-minute temporary lifeline to the region.

The city has been concerned about adopting a new permanent plan while being responsible for maintaining what is known as the salt line, a line of demarcation where incoming saltwater from the Delaware Bay meets the river’s freshwater. It is held in place by timely releases of freshwater from the reservoirs, providing enough of a flow to keep incoming saltwater from intruding up the Delaware River.


Downtown Hancock. Residents have watched as the decisions governing the river’s health and its future are made by stakeholders elsewhere.

Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

City officials worry that rising sea levels might put the city’s drinking water at risk, because more reservoir water might be needed to maintain the salt line.

Along the upper Delaware, a concern for many people is the risk of flooding to properties close to the water.

“You could warn, warn and beg and plead, and they will not pay attention until it blows up,” said Chuck Schroeder, the president of Drowning on the Delaware, a flood awareness group. He owns a house on the banks of the east branch of the river that has been ravaged by floodwaters.

Among the chain of towns pocketed around the Catskills that have populations rarely topping four figures, many are wholly dependent on visitors and owners of second homes who flock to the area starting in April to fish for trout, an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.

“It’s a world-class fishery,” said Bruce Miller, a 68-year-old fishing guide from Olive, N.Y., who has been working on the upper Delaware for more than 40 years. “It’s kind of frustrating to know that there’s plenty of water for everybody and they’re not making any kind of agreement for all parties. It’s a shame.”

Besides fishing, recreational tourism — canoeing, tubing, rafting and camping — is just as reliant on the high water marks preserved by the constant dam releases.

“The manufacturing economy stinks,” said Bill Gross, 49, who owns a canoe rental company in Hancock. “The only thing we really have is tourism. Without that, you know, what else do you have? It’s their drinking water, and I understand that. All we ask is for enough water to make a living.”

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