Energy. Environment. Economy.

$35M initiative aims to improve water quality in the Delaware River basin

Wildlife along the Delaware River at Washington Avenue Green Park in Philadelphia.

WHYY Photo

Wildlife along the Delaware River at Washington Avenue Green Park in Philadelphia.

The Delaware River watershed supplies drinking water to millions of people. Managing water quality is a challenge that changes from upstate New York down to the Delaware Bay. The William Penn Foundation announced today a $35 million initiative to tackle this shifting problem by uniting the efforts of more than 40 conservation groups and monitoring the results.

Rather than approaching the whole river basin at once, the Philadelphia-based philanthropy’s efforts are focusing on eight sub-watersheds, or clusters of rivers and streams facing different challenges from forest fragmentation to agricultural runoff.

“It really is about this idea of collective and cumulative impacts that we can observe and measure and fine-tune and then model to export to other places,” said Andrew Johnson, the foundation’s senior program officer for watershed protection.

Water quality fluctuates across the more than 13,500-mile watershed that spans parts of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. For instance, the forested regions near the Poconos Mountains and the wetlands of the Upper Lehigh have some of the lowest numbers of impaired streams and hundreds of thousands of acres of protected lands. The goal in these areas will be to maintain water quality by preventing deforestation and promoting sensitive development.

Bud Cook with the Pennsylvania field office of The Nature Conservancy said part of their efforts will focus on working with landowners to conserve forestland.

“When a family needs revenue they often have to sell off 20 acres worth of timber,” Cook said. “They may not be harvesting the timber in a way that’s good for the fresh water resources.”

Cook said another threat to forest conservation in the upper reaches of the watershed is energy infrastructure like natural gas pipelines and other transmission lines.

By contrast, groups working in the suburbs of Philadelphia have the challenge of cleaning up waterways that have been polluted by urban runoff. When it rains, pollutants from gasoline to garbage get pushed off impervious surfaces into rivers and streams.

“Your rooftop contributes to that from the downspouts, your driveway contributes to that, your office park, your parking lot, your shopping center,” said Patrick Starr, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environment Council.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will receive $7 million to give out to local groups for restoration projects such as tree planting and programs to teach farmers and citizens how to better manage runoff. The Open Space Institute will get $10 million to distribute for acquisitions and easements to protect land from development.

Restoration efforts will be monitored by a team from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University through a $3 million grant. That includes collecting baseline data on water quality in each sub-watershed and tracking improvement over the first three years.

“Never before have we been actually asked or required by our funding source to actually try to show that there’s actual measurable water quality improvement and change,” said Patrick Starr.

Gathering baseline water quality data is of particular importance as the Delaware River watershed prepares for potential natural gas development. There is currently a moratorium on drilling in the watershed, but Andrew Johnson with the William Penn Foundation says this initiative will create a significant repository of data if the moratorium is lifted.

“It’s a really important tool and effort to guide development.”


*A note of disclosure: StateImpact Pennsylvania receives funding from the William Penn Foundation


  • Forester

    True environmental protection is achieved when the property’s physical owners have reached a level of financial security whereas the resources on the property no longer are the means to sustain ownership but rather insurance against loss. Therefore the remedy to pollution is allow the property owners to manage all of their resources: timber & natural gas to reach prosperity. The alternative to management is subdivision & loss, where the real pollution begins. Hey William Penn Foundation, take your $35 million & reimburse the mineral owners of Wayne County for stealing their property rights through the DRBC. Oh yea, that’s just this years bill…

  • Grace Wildermuth

    I find it troubling that, according to this article, all $35 million from the William Penn Foundation for this initiative will be given to “conservation groups” in an effort to “teach farmers and citizens how to better manage runoff”. As Bud Cook correctly states above, most unsustainable timber harvesting is a result of a family’s inability to make ends meet. Instead of assuming that landowners are incapable of responsibly managing runoff and need to be educated, how about considering that the knowledge is there but the financial resources are not. Why isn’t any of this $35 million going to landowners?
    Furthermore, this article chooses to point out possible threats to water quality due to potential hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the region, but fails to mention the probable positive effects that it might have on the watershed. The economic stimulus supplied by natural gas leases would allow landowners to harvest their timber more responsibly, instead of having to sell 20 acres off to pay their school taxes. It would allow landowners to preserve their farm and forestland, making sure that it did not end up in the hands of developers who might turn it into shopping centers, parking lots, or office parks as mentioned above.
    I wish I could say that I was surprised by the lack of landowner perspectives supplied in this article, but it seems consistent with StateImpact Pennsylvania’s track record and their funding from the William Penn Foundation.

  • Ladderback

    What is the greatest weapon against the willy nilly subdivision of land in the upper Delaware? Landowners who don’t have to sell land to pay taxes. What would allow them to be in that position? Royalties from natural gas for one. Who would buy the land if the locals had to sell? Wealthy residents of NYC and NJ. Starting to get the picture? For the wealthy to buy their little slice of heaven and not contribute to the local economy, they need landowners living in bucolic poverty who will eventually have to sell land (to the wealthy) to continue living in the area. By the bye, there is no moratorium in place, it is a DE FACTO moratorium because the 5 members of the DRBC can’t agree on how to put on a pair of pants or develop rules and regs for safe gas exploration and landowners pay for their dithering. The wealthy? Well, they are still using gas in increasing quantities while complaining about where it comes from.

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