(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN APRIL 2007)The Delaware River is the largest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi.
Some 15 million people rely on the Delaware, and most of New York City and all of Philadelphia use it for drinking water. Additionally, millions use it for recreation; 5 million people alone visit the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area each year. Then there are the fish, birds and other wildlife who live in the river and along it.
But very fact that the river is free-flowing -- which is to say that it is not dammed at any point from its upstate New York headwaters until it empties into Delaware Bay -- has caused substantial destruction in the residential communities along the river in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania after each of the three major floods since 2004.
Enough is enough, say these residents, who are begging the Delaware River Basin Commission for relief. That would be in the form of a plan to manage discharges from three reservoirs upriver from flood-prone areas.
Trouble is, these long-suffering residents have some pretty formidable competition: All of those people who drink the river's water, boat and fish on it and use its wildlife habitats, not to mention the wildlife itself.
The history of the Delaware River since Colonial times looms large in whether the contradictory interests of the residents and everyone and everything else can be balanced. That history – notably a decade-long war over an immense dam project that attained international notoriety -- is a cautionary tale.
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There has been no greater disaster in the modern history of the Poconos than the battle over that project – the Army Corps of Engineers plan to dam the Delaware River at Tocks Island. Not even the deadly twin hurricanes of 1955 can compare.
Tocks Island would be a lightning rod for the nascent American environmental movement. It would destroy the careers of some politicians and bring success to others. It would be the cause of suicides, arsons and violence. It would expose deep tears in the social fabric of the Poconos, unleashing a deep bitterness against the Corps and the dam’s powerful, politically connected backers that seems just as intense today as it was three decades ago.
The idea of taming the Delaware had been a twinkle in the eye of entrepreneurs since before the Revolutionary War.
In the 1770s, the first made-made changes were made to the river when a channel was cut through the rapids at Trenton, New Jersey to facilitate passage of coal barges. It seemed inevitable that the river would be dammed, but in 1783 Pennsylvania and New Jersey bowed to pressure from powerful sawmill owners, whose barges needed an unobstructed river, and signed an anti-dam treaty that was to hold for 150 years.
The treaty was challenged repeatedly as the Industrial Revolution spread from England to the young republic and factories and mills sprang up downriver from the Poconos. In an 1852 decision that complicated the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that textile mill owners could not raise interstate issues like damming a river that flowed through several states unless one of the states did so first. None did.
In 1890, New Jersey industrialist Charles C. Worthington bought 6,500 acres of land abutting the New Jersey side of the river above the Delaware Water Gap that included Sunfish Pond. That is where the Minsi Indians, who were among the first permanent Native American settlers of any consequence, had fished since they arrived 800 years ago, about the time the barons of the Runnymeade were demanding that King John sign the Magna Carta.
Not coincidental with Worthington's purchase, the New Jersey legislature soon enacted a law allowing companies to be formed for building hydropower dams. In 1913, a one such dam was proposed at Belvidere, New Jersey, 15 miles downriver from Delaware Water Gap, and in 1918 six dams were proposed as part of a massive Boston-to-Washington hydropower system. But the treaty still held.
New York City’s unquenchable thirst would break the deadlock.
In 1931, as the shadow of the Great Depression spread across the land, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. affirmed New York’s right to divert water from the Delaware based on the principle of equitable apportionment. In other words, each state in the river basin had a right to a fair share of water.
Three developments in the mid-1930s would frame future debate over the fate of the Delaware: The Army Corps of Engineers recommended that a dam be built at Tocks Island, the Tennessee Valley Authority was formed and an independent study concluded that the Tocks site was unsuitable.
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Tocks Island is a negligible spit of sand covered with oak, sycamore and scrub brush that sits midstream about six miles above Delaware Water Gap just out of the sight of motorists crossing the Interstate 80 toll bridge that links Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Under the Corps’ plan, a reinforced concrete dam – by far the largest east of the Mississippi – would be built at the site, but the proposal was shelved because money to undertake such a huge project simply was not available during those lean times.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, a cornerstone of President Roosevelt’s New Deal activism, gave the Corps unprecedented authority to build dams and hydroelectric plants in four states. The TVA might have been a godsend in the rural South, but was viewed as a federal power grab by politicians in the Delaware River Basin. They were determined to not allow Washington to control what happened to their river.
Philadelphia’s water needs also were growing, and as the Depression receded the city expressed interest in reviving the Corps’ Tocks plan. But its own study of the site concluded that there were big problems that would preclude construction of a dam.
First was the violence that would be done to the surrounding area by a reservoir. The primary concern, however, was the impact on recreation; the study’s authors did not seem particularly exercised about the people whose homes and farms would be under water. Then there was the need for expensive filtration and chemical treatment plants because of the buildup of algae that would result from the reservoir, as well as questions as to whether the riverbed was stable enough to support a concrete dam. The Corps itself would express this very concern in a 1942 study that found that where there was thought to be bedrock beneath the river, there instead were reminders of the last Ice Age: an unstable mix of glacial till, drift and alluvial deposits.
Most significantly, the Philadelphia study debunked the notion that a dam would help control flooding. That was not quite true. The most severe flooding occurs on tributaries, where high waters breach the banks much more quickly than on the Delaware. Dam or not, tributaries and not the river itself are where the most damage occurs.
That was borne out in horrifying fashion in August 1955 when hurricanes Connie and Diane clobbered the region, dumping 20 inches of rain in less than a week. Some 78 people died in the Poconos, most of them from flood surges that turned babbling brooks into raging torrents. The flood wave on Brodhead Creek crested at 30 feet, destroying a church camp and sweeping 38 people to their deaths, most of them children huddled on the top floor of the main building.
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Advocates of the Tocks dam saw an opening in the wake of the hurricanes and drove right through it. While the 1942 study had concluded that conditions under the river were unsatisfactory for a concrete dam, the Corps nevertheless dusted off its Tocks Island plan and now asserted the absence of bedrock could be dealt with by an earth and rock-fill dam with a decreased slope in order to spread its weight over a wider area.
The hurricanes also marked the end of resistance by the states to federal involvement. In 1959, support for the dam took a giant leap with creation of the Delaware River Basin Commission, comprised of the governors of the four states in the basin and a non-voting member from the federal government. The Corps would oversee construction and Washington would put up the money, although unlike the TVA, the states would have substantial control.
In 1962, Congress authorized the appropriation of $122 million to build a huge earth and rock-fill dam at Tocks, submerging the historic Minisink Valley and creating a 37-mile-long, 140-foot deep lake extending nearly to Port Jervis, New York. Surrounding this monstrosity would be a 72,000-acre, 80-square-mile park to be called Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. However, the first battle lines were drawn over little Sunfish Pond.
The surprising success of that effort would have unexpected repercussions for Tocks.
In 1965, Glenn Fisher, a brilliant and cantankerous U.S. Agriculture Department scientist whom I befriended years later, and Casey Kays, a New Jersey outdoorsman, independently began calling attention to the imminent destruction of Sunfish Pond and the lovely meadow around it, which was bisected by the Appalachian Trail.
The pond was atop a 708-acre parcel once owned by Worthington that a consortium of companies had bought with little public notice from the state of New Jersey for construction of a pumped-water storage system. Meanwhile, Nancy Shukaitis, whose family had lived in the Minisink since the 1790s, formed the first anti-Tocks organization as the Corps began buying up properties in the footprint of the reservoir.
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The Army Corps of Engineers, created in 1799, has a long and checkered history as the custodian of America’s rivers, harbors and wetlands. As was the case with Tocks, it often has been an intermediary between powerful political and private interests. As was the case with Tocks, it manipulated its own engineering and economic analyses to suit its needs. As was the case with Tocks, its tactics could be brutal.
It was bad enough that the Corps offered only pennies on the dollar for properties in the footprint of the Tocks reservoir. It also strong-armed resistant landowners with threats to bring in bulldozers if they didn’t sell on the Corps’ terms.
Although it would be years before the dam would be built, beginning in 1967 and continuing for five years, a total of 206 families were forced out of their homes in three Pennsylvania and two New Jersey counties on both sides of the river. The plight of some of farmers -- left with fields to work but no farmhouses or barns – was particularly poignant. Two homeowners took their lives. Many others, including Shukaitis’ own father-in-law, Blanchard Michael, never recovered from the ordeal and went to early graves.
Michael’s forebears of had emigrated from England, arriving in the late 1780s during the last throes of the Minsi Indian rebellion against settlers. Michaels had farmed the valley for six generations when the Corps announced that it was appropriating their property.
“My father-in-law lived in the belief that the farm wouldn’t be taken,” Shukaitis told me. “I never understood how deeply he felt until he testified in federal court.” Asked what the loss of his farm meant to him by a lawyer for the anti-dam coalition, the proud man bust into tears and wept inconsolably before finally summoning a response.
“I can’t pass it on to my sons,” he said simply.
Michael, like his father before him, was diabetic, and the stress of the pending eviction took its toll. He lost one toe and then a second and third, and finally a leg. No longer able to walk behind his plow team, he faded rapidly and died in 1969. Shukaitis and her husband were evicted the following year.
As the evictions accelerated, the Corps added insult to injury, placing “Houses for Rent” ads in the Village Voice and other New York City newspapers. Under pressure to cut costs, it calculated that revenue could be generated by renting out now-vacant properties until the dam was completed and the reservoir began filling up.
It calculated wrong. The ads were answered by flower children, artists, wannabe farmers and back-to-nature freaks. This ragtag band preferred to be called “river people,” but many were squatters pure and simple who saw an opportunity to freeload off of Uncle Sam. They soon filled the valley’s condemned homes. Some moved into chicken coops. Others put up teepees and geodesic domes. If the dam was a powder keg, the squatters would be the match that lit the fuse.
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The Corps had the backing of the governors, congressional delegations, utility companies and business establishments in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware. It also had the tacit support of a U.S. District Court judge in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who turned aside efforts by Shukaitis’ group to scuttle the massive project on the grounds that engineers had made faulty assumptions about the underlying geology and environmental impact. Nevertheless, things were not going well for the people who had all the power and money.
The persistent Fisher and Kays, who had joined forces to form the Lenni Lenape League, caught the first wave of the environmental movement and rode it to Sunfish Pond.
Over 1,000 people joined Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and his young wife on a widely-publicized protest hike to the pond in 1967. The power companies eventually relented and sold the land back to New Jersey, while the soft-spoken Shukaitis, a political neophyte, unexpectedly was elected to the Board of Commissioners for Monroe County, where most of the reservoir would be situated. An emboldened Fisher, tasting blood, turned his sights on Tocks.
Things also were not going well for the American forces bogged down in Vietnam. Beyond the mounting body count, the unpopular conflict was draining the federal treasury. By 1969, the price tag for Tocks had nearly doubled to $214 million. In 1971, the Pappalardos were the last family to leave the valley. The Corps had appraised their lovely three-bedroom fieldstone house and 20 acres for a measly $16,000.
Unlike the Michael family, the Pappalardos were relative newcomers.
Anthony Pappalardo, the oldest of six sons of Italian immigrants, moved into the Minisink in 1940 and started a chicken farm. Eggs were rationed during World War II, and he prospered by selling them in New York City. Anthony’s son, Pete, also is convinced that his father’s life was shortened considerably by the trauma of being evicted.
“We felt like Native Americans. It was a blatant theft of our land,” Pete Pappalardo told me. “We had to move to a house trailer. My mother put up a sign on it that said ‘Halfway House’. Freddie peeled away the ‘W’ and the ‘Y' so the sign read “Half a House.”
The bad publicity generated by the evictions hadn’t been much more than an annoyance for Tocks proponents, but another war closer to home was taking a dramatic turn. That was the war between locals and the squatters. Many residents resented the long-haired newcomers, who swam nude in the river, grew marijuana between rows of corn, harbored runaways and flirted with their teenaged children. Worst of all, some of the squatters were getting welfare.
Having creating the squatter problem, the Corps then tried to wash its hands of it. The Pennsylvania Department of Justice initially agreed to assume jurisdiction over the Minisink Valley because the Corps believed that when the time came to evict the squatters, it would be easier to do so through state courts. But the state backed out when it realized that this was no mere penny ante tenant-landlord dispute.
“There is not one among the squatters I would completely trust to react in what could be considered a normal, lucid manner,” an anonymous Corps official was quoted as saying in one of the many vitriolic articles in the region’s only daily newspaper, the slavishly pro-dam Pocono Record. The official asserted that there was widespread lawlessness, drug use and venereal disease, and that “all the squatters, even the more stable ones, are erratic at times.”
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By 1971, tensions had escalated into violence. Carloads of young men sped through the valley shooting out squatters’ windows, setting fires to houses, barns and outbuildings, and killing pets and farm animals.
In September 1971, with Fisher leading an organization of squatters half his age, he demanded that Monroe County provide police protection. Before he could get an answer, armed federal marshals attacked six squatter houses and a pup tent with bulldozers. The raid ended in a standoff when squatters climbed onto roofs and refused to leave. The Corps turned to the friendly District Court judge in Scranton, filing suit to evict them.
In July 1973, the judge ruled that the squatters were illegally occupying valley homes. In November, he gave them 30 days to vacate, but they refused. Finally, in the predawn hours of February 24, 1974, the standoff ended as 90 federal marshals pounced on 65 squatters, including a woman who had given birth the night before. The number would have been higher, but the squatters had been tipped to the impending raid. Bulldozers quickly demolished the buildings, including several historic structures. The occupation was over, but for all intents and purposes so was the fight to build the dam.
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The second wave of environmentalism came from, of all places, the White House.
On New Years Day 1970, four months before the first Earth Day, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which required extensive studies on how federal projects like Tocks would affect their surroundings. Had the dam already been under construction, it would have been exempted.
In early 1971, the Corps announced groundbreaking would be delayed while an environmental impact statement was drafted. In July of that year, U.S. Representative Pete du Pont of Delaware became the first major politician to break ranks with pro-dam forces when he unsuccessfully tried to remove money allocated for the first phase of reconstruction because of environmental concerns, including the buildup of algae in the reservoir first addressed in the Philadelphia study 35 years earlier.
Du Pont succeeded on the second try. By May 1972, New Jersey Governor Tom Cahill had concluded that the dam was becoming political poison. Parting ways with his fellow governors, he outlined several stringent environmental conditions that would have to be met if the Garden State was to continue to support the project.
Although the cracks in the Tocks project were multiplying, following the February 1974 raid the Corps accelerated the razing of valley buildings and gutting of others, including historic Zion Lutheran Church, which was stripped of its floors, windows and woodwork. One house was destroyed by accident.
In September 1974, Shukaitis’ group, the Sierra Club and other organizations obtained a restraining order stopping further destruction. The federal budget that year contained no Tocks money for the first time since 1964, and in 1975 the Delaware River Basin Commission, with the Corps’ reluctant acquiescence, voted 3-1 to abandon Tocks. Only Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp, clinging to the tired lie that the dam would control flooding, still wanted to move ahead on a project now estimated to cost $400 million.
Attempts in Congress over the next three years to de-authorize the dam failed, but U.S. Representative Peter Kostmayer of Pennsylvania eventually was able to make an end run by way of legislation designating the upper and middle Delaware River as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. President Carter signed the bill on November 10, 1978, nearly 45 years after the Corps first proposed a dam at Tocks.
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The bitterness over Tocks lingers on for Nancy Shukaitis and Pete Pappalardo.
Shukaitis is a model of civility, but has difficulty finding anything nice to say about the National Park Service rangers who moved in when the Corps of Engineers was sent packing.
“My God,” she exclaimed. “They’re on a power trip. They act like the Delaware belongs to them. I have a young nephew who was admonished by a park ranger for skipping rocks across the river.”
Pappalardo is less sanguine. He cannot bring himself to return to the site of his family home or anywhere else in the recreation area since he was confronted by a park ranger in the mid-1980s. “I get hot under the collar whenever I see a [Park Service] uniform,” he said.
Pappalardo crossed paths with the ranger while hunting. Although he had a hunting license, hunters are supposed to carry a second form of identification, and he didn’t have any. “The ranger told me that ‘Pappalardo’ sounded like the name of a former valley family. I confirmed that it was. The ranger said I would just receive a warning, not a fine, but that was just adding insult to injury.
“They should issue Sorry Cards to the rangers. When they run into someone like me they should give us a dollar and do a Sorry Dance for us.”
Congress formally de-authorized the Tocks Island Dam project in July 1992, 30 years after it had been funded.
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Fast forward 15 years and the latest battle over bending the Delaware River to suit the purposes of a few to the potential detriment of many.
I understand why the residents in those flood-prone areas are pleading with the Delaware River Basin Commission for relief.
Under a so-called Flexible Flow Management Plan now being studied by the commission in response to the residents' dilemma, discharges into the river from three upstate New York reservoirs – the Cannonsville, Neversink and Pepacton – would be managed for five months of the year.
These reservoirs were near or above 100 percent capacity when heavy rains soaked the Delaware River Basin, causing flooding and consequent destruction in low-lying areas after three major floods in September 2004, April 2005 and June 2006.
Under the plan, discharges would commence when they reached 75 percent capacity, but that would only be in effect from August through December. In other words, during months other than those that produced two of the three recent floods, one of which was during a severe drought.
While the residents of the low-lying areas deserve sympathy, they are likely to lose out. Yet again, the Delaware River will prevail, as it should.