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December 09, 2016
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Hidden Treasures of the Delaware

Mussels contribute to water quality and clarity through their filtering capacity. Clear water in the righthand tank containing mussels after less than an hour as compared to the original turbid water in the lefthand tank.
Photo by Jacob Rash, Virginia Tech

In contrast, the numerous dams that exclude American eels from the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River have kept much of its aging population (some live over 100 years) of freshwater mussels from reproducing (and in decline), water quality is not all that it could be, excess nutrients and sediments are being flushed to Chesapeake Bay, and hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars are spent annually in an effort to clean up significant water quality problems there. Today’s Chesapeake Bay has about 1% of the oysters it had historically. Those historic oyster populations could filter the entire volume of water in that vast bay in four days. If we’d done enough to sustain them, this natural capital would still be able to provide their numerous valuable ecosystem services, for free.

The Delaware River is unique in that originates from a drainage that is relatively undeveloped, an upper basin that is still over 80% forested, and a landscape that retains its ability to produce clean water. It is the Delaware’s high-quality water, complemented by diverse habitats and connectivity with its floodplain, a complex food web, and an absence of dams on the main stem, that enables the superb aquatic resources we have here to flourish. These resources, such as freshwater mussels, in turn provide a positive feedback mechanism that further improves habitat and water quality and extends this water quality downriver for ecosystem, drinking water, industrial and other human needs.

In the face of now certain climate change, this Delaware River, because of all these features, will fare better than most rivers in their ability to continue to produce high-quality water, which will become an even more precious, and absolutely essential, resource for human and ecosystem needs into the future