Working Landscape

High Water Mark

By Neil deMause

“….The catalyzing moment in the modern history of the Delaware, everyone agrees, was the great flood of 1955. Within one week that August, Hurricanes Connie and Diane delivered a devastating one-two punch, dropping almost two feet of rain on the valley. Rivers flooded along the entire Minisink; one, Brodhead Creek, jumped its banks and washed away an entire summer camp. In all, 99 people died.

In that heyday of Cold War can-do-ism, this sort of meteorological impetuousness was simply unacceptable. And so, the Army Corps of Engineers promptly proposed an anti-flood offensive, consisting of 47 dams up and down the Delaware watershed. Its centerpiece was to be a massive earthen dam blocking the Delaware itself, providing water and power to the surrounding region in addition to flood control — and, incidentally, flooding 12,000 acres of land from Tocks Island six miles above the Water Gap, where the 160-foot-high dam would rise, to Port Jervis, 35 miles upstream. It would be the largest dam east of the Mississippi, it would cost $90 million in 1961 dollars, and it would be completed by 1975.

Residents of the valley were incredulous, then horrified. Transforming the flowing Delaware into a giant lake, they pointed out, would destroy not just their farms and homes, but the natural beauty of the valley. During “drawdown,” the partial draining of the reservoir during times of low water flow, mudflats would grow along the lakeshore; meanwhile, eutrophication, the buildup of algae as the result of agricultural runoff into stagnant water, would turn the reservoir into what one observer called a “gigantic cesspool.”

The Corps listened to the complaints, and dismissed them. Residents grew angrier; some began to organize. Others sold their homes rather than face the encroaching floodwaters, and the legal battles that were already beginning to spread before them. “In the early years the attitude was, and it’s probably usual in the case of a project like this, ‘Oh, it’s never gonna happen,'” recalls Mina Hamilton, whose childhood farmhouse stood on the Jersey side of the valley. Her father, she remembers, “sat there and said, ‘With the war so expensive, they’re never going to have the money to do this.’ That was when they were already buying up land.”

Read High Water Mark at HERE

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