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October 04, 2015
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The Delaware River: it’s everyone’s water

We who live in the Upper Delaware River Valley are lucky. We get to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us as a part of our everyday lives. The rivers and streams, trails and open spaces—from greenway corridors and conservation areas to acres of rolling farmland that we sometimes take for granted—also draw economic value from tourism dollars that directly or indirectly support many local businesses and benefit our rural communities. Historically, the river helped upstream communities engage in commerce downstream all the way to Philadelphia (and later to New York City via the D&H Canal), and though the industry has changed, it remains true today that the river we value so much is an economic engine.

Consider for a moment the Delaware River Basin (DRB) as a whole; the market value of economic activities attributed to river- and watershed-based assets are calculated to be worth $25 billion annually, according to a 2011 study (Socioeconomic Value of the Delaware River Basin in Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, prepared by Gerald J. Kauffman, October 11, 2011). If one counts the natural capital value of ecosystem goods and services, for example forestland that stores and sequesters carbon and freshwater wetlands that filter clean drinkable water, etc. you can add another $21 billion per year (based on net present value, discounted over 100 years). The DRB’s water supplies, natural resources and ecosystems account for 600,000 direct and indirect jobs (2009 figures) with $10 billion in annual wages.

For some time, there have been those in the Upper Delaware River Valley who have wished that our downstream neighbors, who are beneficiaries of the river’s natural assets (15 million people drink its water), would recognize its indispensible worth to them and invest in our upriver rural local economies. It is good news, then, that today our downriver neighbors are increasingly aware that the clean water they currently enjoy depends on how our upriver communities develop in the future. Apart from our neighbors, it is worth emphasizing that environmentally appropriate development will benefit our local communities, too.

Now comes the downstream-based William Penn Foundation, a private foundation, which has announced an initial investment of $35 million in grants to dozens of organizations in the Delaware River watershed. Basin-wide, these funds are earmarked to support 46 named conservation and research institutions to work collaboratively in smaller clusters centered on eight sub-watersheds of the Delaware River. Fifteen million dollars over three years will go to develop projects, conduct research and to strengthen community outreach and organizing; $7 million is for restoration (projects like tree planting, stream bank stabilization and installation of best management practices on farms); $10 million is for protection activities (for targeted acquisition of land and conservation easements); and $3 million goes to the Academy of Natural Sciences for scientific monitoring of each project’s impact on water quality to inform continuous improvement.

In our region, eight local organizations working in the Pocono-Kittatinny Sub-watershed Cluster will share $1.7 million; they are Delaware Highlands Conservancy, Pinchot Institute for Conservation, Pocono Heritage Land Trust, Nature Conservancy (PA field office), Trust of Public Land (NJ field office), Brodhead Watershed Association and East Stroudsburg University. Together they will work on 17 conservation projects aimed at preserving high-quality and extra-value waters and at supporting the permanent conservation of cold-water trout streams. Other grant-covered work for this cluster includes supporting local municipalities with land-use planning; stream monitoring projects and complementary research to provide the rationale for investment by downstream water utilities in source-water protection; and identifying critical landscapes, such as forested headwaters and greenway corridors deserving of protection.

The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), established in the 1980s to address the severe pollution of the bay, holds a lesson for how a regional, basin-wide partnership can address water-quality problems. Through this program over the years, millions of dollars have been invested in the Susquehanna River Watershed to improve water quality to the benefit of farmers and other landowners, fishermen and recreational users, and countless others. The time has come for all stakeholders in the Delaware River watershed to work together, too, to preserve our own natural treasure. And because our river is in better shape than the Susquehanna was (or even is today), it may provide an even better model for future conservation.

Preserving clean water is important work. Conserving open space, greenways and farmland is important work. Building partnerships, both locally and basin-wide, is essential to this work. The money offered through the William Penn grant is an important step not only toward preserving water quality, but also in helping protect the natural assets that make our region so special.

Finally, the counties of the Upper Delaware River region need investment to fuel economic development, job creation, renewable energy production, agricultural market development, tourism promotion, recreational activities development, public access to land, infrastructure improvements, etc. We urge other large national and regional funders, public-interest organizations and governmental entities to invest in our region’s future. It is a win-win. Further, we urge our own local counties and municipalities to embrace this and other funding mechanisms and, whenever possible, to partner with others throughout the entire river basin—whether on conservation projects, land use planning or energy planning, landowner outreach and education and other projects.

All of us, from the river’s headwaters to the delta, are stakeholders and must see ourselves as stewards of this essential resource. The water of the Delaware River is, after all, a shared, vital natural asset. As a friend of ours says, “It’s everyone’s water.”