Gov. Rendell met late yesterday afternoon with Delaware River flood victims, giving them an opportunity to make their case that he can - and should - do more to force New York City to permanently lower water levels in its three Catskills reservoirs to lessen the threat of deluges downstream.
The meeting, closed to news reporters, was held in the governor's regional office in Center City. It was to begin at 5:30 p.m. and end a half-hour later, but a Rendell staffer said it had lasted until shortly after 6:30. The governor was not available for comment last night.
Jeff Zimmerman, a Maryland lawyer representing flood victims, called the meeting "very good" and said Rendell had agreed to future meetings and to study a number of suggestions made.
In addition to greater storage capacity in the reservoirs, those suggestions included blocking passage of new flow-management rules for the reservoirs that the Delaware River Basin Commission, of which Pennsylvania is a member, is expected to vote on in July. The group also urged Rendell to push for implementation of emergency action plans for all reservoirs in the Delaware River Basin, safety inspections of the dams, and larger valves that could release more water when necessary.
In a telephone interview before the meeting, Rendell said he did not expect to decide last night what action, if any, to take.
He said he had agreed to sit down with the residents after New Hope flood victim Gail Pedrick confronted him while he was in the borough for the Gay Pride parade May 17. Pedrick asked for a chance to explain why she and others think he could do more to protect Pennsylvanians living along the river.
The retired gym teacher's riverfront home sustained more than $200,000 in damage when the Delaware flooded three times between September 2004 and June 2006.
She and more than 10,000 other flood victims and sympathizers contend flooding has become more severe because New York City maintains its upstream reservoirs at or near capacity. At least a half-dozen citizens groups have crusaded for the reservoirs to be kept no more than 80 percent full. The manmade lakes serve nine million people from Ulster County, N.Y., to Queens.
Rendell said he was not convinced he could force New York to change the way it operated its reservoirs. He said it was his understanding that any modifications would require the consent of all four basin states - New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania - and New York City.
That is what occurred in April when, at Rendell's request, New York City agreed to hold the reservoirs at 97 percent through the month. Yesterday, he called the effort "yeoman's work" and added, "I'm not sure I have the power to do more than I've done."
Rendell, who attended the meeting with staff attorneys, said he would take what he heard under advisement.
In the interview, he said he remained unconvinced that the reservoirs were the cause of recent severe flooding. Rather, he said, "various townships and boroughs all along the Delaware have been doing bad land-use planning."
Even if he could require New York to reduce the water in its reservoirs, Rendell said, "that doesn't mean I'll still do it."
While the welfare of flood victims is a concern, he said, so are the 2.5 million residents of Philadelphia, Bucks County and South Jersey who rely on the river for water. Drought, not flooding, has been the more persistent problem along the Delaware.
Reached just before she left for the meeting, Pedrick noted only that "we have a lot to say in a half-hour."
James F. Cawley, chairman of the Bucks County commissioners, said yesterday that county officials were purposely not attending the meeting - even though they would like Rendell to push for lowered reservoir levels.
"It's important for the governor to experience firsthand the unrestricted passion that these residents have on this issue," Cawley said.