State gives reprieve to rivers after environmentalist outcry

Kaitlin Keane

Environmental advocates are applauding the state’s last-minute reversal of a policy shift that could have left many local rivers high and dry.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said this week it will suspend proposed changes to the agency’s safe yield policy, which dictates how much water can be diverted from a river or stream for water supplies or industrial use.

Changes proposed in early October would have altered the longtime interpretation of “safe yield,” which took into account how much water was needed to maintain a sound environmental habitat.

The change drew harsh criticism from environmentalists who said it would allow water authorities to drain rivers and streams to dangerously low levels without any regard for the impact on the habitat.

After the change was proposed, four major environmental groups resigned from the state’s Water Resources Management Advisory Committee, and 55 organizations signed a letter condemning the change.

Now the state environmental agency has agreed to take another look at the policy and clarify the importance of environmental factors in calculating safe yield, Commissioner Laurie Burt said.

“We are making clear to people that yes, environmental factors, in addition to hydrologic factors, are part of safe yield,” Burt said.

“Those four members of the advisory committee are all back at the table, and we are rolling up our sleeves and getting back to work.”

Local advocates praised the reversal, saying the initial changes would devastate local waterways that they described as already flowing at dangerously low levels.

Samantha Woods, executive director of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, said the effectiveness of the safe yield policy has long been a point of contention among environmental groups.

The change, which was proposed after the state Appeals Court asked the agency to reevaluate the policy, would have moved it further in the wrong direction, Woods said.

“For years there’s been a dispute about how safe is ‘safe yield,’” said Woods, who is also a board member for the Weir River Watershed Association.

The fact that the state was receptive to the outcry of environmentalists left many advocates “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the regulations, Woods said.

Instead of enacting the proposed changes, officials will work with the advisory council to create an interim policy this month. Permanent safe yield regulations should be updated and in place by October 2010, Burt said.

The cooperative effort comes at a time when environmental programs have been the victim of budget cuts, including a water-level monitoring system for the Weir River.

“It shows good form that the DEP listened fairly quickly to water advocates,” said Woods, who acknowledged the state also feels pressure from water authorities to allow greater yields.

“I think there’s some place in the middle we can meet to provide more protection,” she said, “and I think that will happen.”

The Patriot Ledger