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October 23, 2014
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editorial

A vision for our watershed


Those of us who live and work in the Upper Delaware River Valley, or those who visit here, know and treasure the great natural beauty that surrounds us. What is often underappreciated, however, is that those very same natural assets contribute to running an immense economic engine in the Delaware River Basin that drives many industries—outdoor recreation; fishing and hunting; forestry; agriculture; and commercial navigation and ports far downstream from us. Amazingly the river also provides 5% of the drinking water in the U.S.

How big an economic engine is the river? According to research in a 2011 study by Jerry Kauffman, professor of water science and policy at the University of Delaware, the Delaware River Basin’s water supplies, natural resources and ecosystems contribute $25 billion in economic activity annually; provide ecosystem goods and services (natural capital) of $21 billion per year and are directly or indirectly responsible for 600,000 jobs with $10 billion in annual wages. Protecting this economic engine is important, and its future rests upon wise use of the river, its tributaries and its ecosystems. We at The River Reporter believe that this can be accomplished only through collaboration among the river’s many users.

An example of how to build such collaboration was in evidence last week at a two-day forum at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Conferees came from over 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), eight federal agencies, state and local regulatory agencies, academia and foundations to attend sessions on preserving and protecting the Delaware River Watershed. Among those partnering in the event were the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, PennFuture, New Jersey Audubon and the William Penn Foundation, which has announced it will direct significant funding to watershed-wide issues and will support work to create a vision for the watershed’s future.

A broad cross-section of stakeholders will be needed to craft such a vision, and the organizers of this forum are to be saluted for bringing so many players to the table. Acting alone, none of the entities concerned for the river’s future can resolve the approaching challenges, both foreseen and unforeseen. Instead, it is essential to be partners.

Our readers may recall a news story published this summer that illustrates what competition for a natural asset looks like, as opposed to collaboration. Thomas Murphy, a representative of New York City’s office that oversees the release of water into the Delaware from that city’s drinking water reservoirs, riled the waters at a meeting of the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) when he referred to his city’s reservoir water as “our” water. One representative of the UDC rejoined, “No, this is our water.”

But really, it is not our water either, because the river belongs to everyone, from its source in nearby Delaware County, NY to its terminus in Delaware Bay. The Delaware River is part of “the commons,” i.e. resources that belong to or affect the whole of a community, or in this case affect many hundreds of downstream communities and many thousands of individual users.

In the decades ahead it is inevitable that there will be increasing competing demands for and pressures on the waters of the Delaware River watershed, but addressing competing demands must be done through collaboration, and that collaboration needs to start by creating a vision for the future of the river and its watershed.