The Delaware River Basin Project

For years conservationists grew increasingly concerned that inflexible management of reservoirs in the Delaware River Basin was damaging the basin’s upstream ecology—most notably the coldwater trout fisheries in the Catskills and Pocono Mountains.

But, in 2004, Peter Kolesar, Professor of Decisions, Risk and Operations at the Columbia Business School, and Upmanu Lall, Columbia Water Center’s Director, began working with a coalition of conservation groups including the Nature Conservancy, the Delaware River Foundation and Trout Unlimited to develop better models for flexible river management.

Over 15 million people rely on water from the Delaware River Basin, including about 7 million in Northern New Jersey and New York City. Given the need to provide water to such a large population, convincing reservoir managers to release more water for the health of the upstream ecosystem was a challenge.

Professors Kolesar  and Lall developed a new methodology for determining the timing and flow of water release. Using sophisticated computer modeling, the methodology takes numerous variable factors into account, including seasons, rainfall, climate variability and the needs of different users. The flexible release approach uses insights from business inventory management to help with decision-making.

They were able to show New York City officials that under the flexible management policy more water could be released for upstream fisheries while still leaving the city with plenty of storage–enough to endure even a severe drought.

In 2007, the Delaware River Basin Commission (the interstate authority that manages the river) adopted the plan. The new plan called the “Flexible Flow Management Policy” has, by some estimates, resulted in economic gains of $163 million annually from boating and fishing income and a 200 percent increase in fish habitat.

The success of the program has sparked interest from various parties around the country, including officials from Georgia, Alabama and Florida that have been in dispute over water allocation in recent years. Continued development of the adaptive management approach can become a vital tool to meet both the water needs of various stakeholders and to provide adequate water flows to maintain the health of ecosystems.

Academic Papers:

Peter Kolesar, James Serio, (2011) Breaking the Deadlock: Improving Water-Release Policies on the Delaware RiverThrough Operations Research. Interfaces 41(1):18-34.

Gavin Gong, Lucien Wang and Upmanu Lall, 2010, Climatic precursors of autumn streamflow in the northeast United States, International Journal of Climatology.

Gavin Gong, Lucien Wang, Laura Condon, Alastair Shearman, and Upmanu Lall, 2010, A Simple Framework for Incorporating Seasonal Streamflow Forecasts Into Existing Water Resource Management Practices, Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Vol. 46, No. 3.