Delaware River Watershed: A Watershed in Transition

It was the kind of announcement that would have been unheard of even a couple of years ago. Ann Mills, USDA Deputy Under Secretary, stood before 100 beaming watershed practitioners in January in Pennsylvania’s Poconos to say the Delaware River Watershed had been awarded three grants totaling $15 million under the agency’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which distributed 115 grants totaling $370 million across the nation. The money is to be used to restore and protect farm and forestland in the watershed with water quality in mind.

There was loud applause, and a spirited “Booyah” from Ed Baird of American Farmland Trust, which had submitted the largest proposal—a $13 million collaborative effort among various ngos—for the watershed, which covers 14,000 miles in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

What a difference a few years can make! Having helped three years ago to research and strategize ways to bring watershed efforts to scale in the Delaware, I leaned back in my chair, amazed.  

Once the stepchild of the better known and more well-funded Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware River Watershed is emerging as a laboratory for innovation.  It’s taking place on the streets of Philadelphia and its suburbs which are using green infrastructure in a closely watched effort to reduce storm water; on farms across the watershed where farmers are installing riparian buffers, managing pesticide and manure use and placing permanent easements on their land for water quality; and in the headwaters where forestland is being protected, dams being pulled down, and new incentives piloted to compensate forestland owners for improved management of their lands. Throughout, there’s in interest in “tried and true” strategies, as well as new ways to protect and restore watersheds that can leverage public investments, tap the market and use science to guide and test the efficacy of protection and restoration investments.

The impetus for the turnaround has come in large part from the William Penn Foundation, whose Delaware River Watershed Initiative is investing $30 million annually into efforts to protect and restore the watershed, which provides drinking water or 15 million people, critical habitat for endangered and threatened plants and animals, and recreation and economic enterprise valued at $10 billion in direct wages.  Named for the largest undammed river east of the Mississippi, the Delaware watershed accounts for only four tenths of one percent of the land area of the nation and yet supplies drinking water to five percent of its population.   

Unlike Texas where water quality remains in short supply, the Delaware watershed generally enjoys plentiful water.  Its water quality has also improved dramatically since the mid-sixties when lower portions of the river were a floating dead zone due to the overwhelming sewage and industrial waste. Thanks to the Clean Water Act and concerted regulatory and civic action, water quality standards have raised levels of dissolved oxygen and allowed the return of shad and other aquatic life, and a permit system for pollutant discharges now regulates point sources. A regional body, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), now provides oversight on watershed matters.

While significant progress has been made in controlling point sources of pollution, the watershed faces significant new threats:  expanding hardscape, unsustainable water withdrawals, runoff from impervious surface, nutrient loads from many sources including most prominently farms, bio-accumulating toxins, and lost tree canopy.  Veterinary and human pharmaceuticals are also reaching detectable levels, while hundreds of other chemicals remain untracked.  New and expanded pipelines and transmission corridors threaten to parcelize the upper watershed, while hydraulic fracking – currently banned under a moratorium instituted by DRBC in the basin—remains a distant but potential threat.  Climate change also poses uncertain challenges for the basin.

The USDA grant signaled an increased level of activity within the nonprofit community.  Two years ago, the William Penn Foundation conducted research and mapping to understand threats in the watershed to water quality, promising strategies to abate them, and places, of “clusters” of sub-watersheds that were relatively in-tact and could be preserved, and those that were impaired and in need of restoration.  Plans were then developed in each of these eight “clusters”—to test approaches to agricultural restoration, watershed protection and stormwater management.  Each plan, developed collaboratively by groups in the cluster, specifies water quality goals, threats, and strategies to abate them and intended outcomes.  The Foundation is supporting efforts in each cluster to collect baseline data and develop a monitoring plan to capture the results of protection and restoration efforts. 

Altogether, the Foundation invested about $35 million through grants to 45+ organizations in these clusters, as well to various intermediaries to establish a $10M land protection fund (Open Space Institute), a $7M restoration fund (National Fish and Wildlife Foundation), a multi-year monitoring effort (The Academy for Natural Science), and a collaborative learning network (Institute for Conservation Leadership).  The Foundation also recently commissioned a multi-year external evaluation of the overall initiative.  The latter is particularly important as the Foundation is testing whether collaboration among groups within and across the “clusters” can accelerate impact.  As one of the nation’s largest philanthropic investments in watershed protection, the effort is likely to be watched closely.

Early results are impressive. With almost $5 million invested over the last year in specific on-the-ground restoration and protection projects, outcomes achieved or expected include:

  • Restoration of 32 miles of riparian areas
  • Installation of Best Management Practices on 2,269 acres of farmland
  • Restoration of 7 miles of in-stream habitat
  • Avoidance of 1,784,430 gallons of storm water
  • Protection of 7,000 acres of important watershed lands
  • Protection of 30 miles of streams and 2,000 acres of stream buffers
  • Significant increases in the amount/percentage of protected land in several critical sub-watersheds within the Basin
  • Leveraging of $15.5 million in other public and private funds for protection of watershed lands

But more than bucks and acres, or linear feet and reduced nitrogen loads are some of the experiments underway.  A snapshot includes:

  • Pairing restoration on farms with permanent protection of their riparian corridors to increase the efficacy of investments in agricultural restoration for water quality.
  • Utilizing watershed science to target investments in land protection, and implementing basin-wide, as well as project-level monitoring, to gauge the health of the watershed, and the effectiveness of acquisition and restoration efforts. 
  • Developing incentives for farmers that engage in watershed-friendly agricultural practices.
  • Securing carbon credits for woodland owners that implement sustainable forestry practices that ensure water quality, and that can help finance protection of forestland.
  • Developing “Wiki Watershed,” a hand-held program that will let communities check and monitor the health of their watersheds.
  • Testing the feasibility of a “water fund” that would enlist private capital to finance watershed protection.
Click to view Initiative Map

Science and markets alone are unlikely to achieve success.  Watersheds are notoriously complex—not just hydrologically but socially.  To keep them in tact, or restore them when they’re not requires that stakeholders—watershed groups, land trusts, funders, university hydrologists, land-use planners, water utilities, regulatory agencies—work together to devise holistic approaches and monitor progress to make the most of every investment.  And this means thinking across boundaries, connecting upstream and downstream strategies and being willing to try new approaches, being creative and risking failure to achieve success.

The strategies are complex and the stakes are high. The Delaware could easily backslide.  But as I gazed about the room during Deputy Secretary Mill’s announcement, I took comfort in the diversity of perspectives, and skills of my colleagues. There were from large national land trusts, small watershed organizations, and acclaimed universities. There were community activists, scientists and traditional conservationists.  What they all shared this day was a belief in the power of collaboration, in their ability to do together what might not be possible alone.  And on this day, you just had to believe they would. 


Peter Howell is executive vice president of the Open Space Institute, a New York-based land conservation organization that is managing the $10 million Delaware River Watershed Protection Fund, which makes loans and grant for land protection to ensure watershed protection.    

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