This post contains an update.

Like many great rivers, the Delaware has multiple identities: water supply for New York City, habitat for native fish populations and flooder of riverside hamlets. Historically, four states have vied for specific claims on the river’s water supply. New York City’s summertime dam releases have posed some of the most challenging problems for river management over the past 30 years, and caused political and environmental tension.

That changed in October 2007. The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) implemented a plan called Flexible Flow Management Policy (FFMP) based on research from Peter Kolesar, a professor emeritus in the Decision, Risk and Operations Division. His work, done in collaboration with scientists and fish experts from the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and Delaware River Foundation, has been nominated for this year’s Franz Edelman Prize. The award ceremony takes place April 18–20, 2010.

The Commission’s FFMP policy is based on Kolesar’s adaptive inventory control research, which expresses the dam releases as a function of the storage in the reservoirs and the season of the year. In the two years since the plan has been in place, estimates place the economic benefit at $163 million annually in fishing and boating income and potential flood mitigation. (Read more about the research in Ideas at Work.)

The plan has potential for other water and river management systems, especially in the Southeast where officials from Georgia and Florida have been fighting for years over water allocation from Lake Lanier and the Tennessee River. The Delaware River case could help solve their conflict and key players from the DRBC have already made visits to Atlanta to share knowledge.

“The benefit of what we did — to bring disputing parties into agreement and our analysis — were breakthroughs,” Kolesar says, whose interest in the river originated with his fly-fishing experience in the Catskills. He says the combination of factors — from the scientific research and involvement of conservationists to local politics — made the success of the FFMP unique. “The whole package is now a possible model for other disputes.”

UPDATE (April 22, 2010): The 2010 Franz Edelman Prize was awarded to Indeval, the Mexican Central Securities Depository, for its application of operations research to complex financial transactions. “Participation in the competition really strengthened our dedication to the Delaware River and reinforced how important good operations analysis is for the river’s management and preservation,” Kolesar said.

Photo credit: Flickr/Chris Martino