Delaware Estuary Partners Renew Pact to Protect Fragile Environment

One goal of new pledge is to counter growing threats from climate change, especially inundation of coastal wetlands by rising sea levels

State and federal officials renewed an agreement to boost water quality, improve land use, and protect natural habitats in the Delaware River and Bay and their surrounding lands in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, a cooperative project on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been working since 1996 to protect the river and bay where fresh water and tidal flows mingle, and on Friday signed a new seven-year pledge to continue its work.

The agreement will be governed by a Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) that covers existing projects ranging from encouraging water conservation to controlling the disposal of toxic chemicals to eradicating mosquitoes in salt marshes.

The plan is also likely to make new efforts to counter growing threats from climate change, especially the inundation of coastal wetlands by rising sea levels.

“The reality is that we are seeing a loss of coastal wetlands,” said Daniel Kennedy, Assistant Commissioner for Water Resources Management in New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. “Events such as superstorm Sandy do bring a new sense or urgency to our efforts on wetlands protection and restoration.”

Protecting a ‘regional resource’

Kennedy said New Jersey benefits by collaborating with state and federal agencies in the partnership. “This is a regional resource,” he said, referring to the estuary, which stretches from Cape May to Trenton. “What we get out of this is science, research and restoration work that we couldn’t do on our own.”

The other partners are the environment agencies of Delaware and Pennsylvania; the EPA; the Delaware River Basin Commission, and the Philadelphia Water Department.

The current seven-year agreement can take credit for better environmental conditions in the estuary, Kennedy said. He cited an increase in mussel beds near Camden and Philadelphia “where you wouldn’t expect them” as an example of the improvements that the partnership has helped to achieve.

But the estuary’s health was judged only “fair” when the partnership issued its last State of the Estuary report, covering 50 indicators of environmental health, in 2012.

On the positive side, water pollution by nutrients and phosphorous was found to be declining; horseshoe crabs were recovering in response to conservation policies by New Jersey and Delaware; and the population of osprey, a bird of prey seen as an indicator of environmental quality, was rising to a healthy level, the report said.

But coastal wetlands such as those in South Jersey were suffering flooding and erosion in the face of sea-level rise, and oysters, many of which are harvested off the coast of Cumberland County, were declining in response to water pollution, according to the report.

“We have some stories of success but we definitely have emerging challenges that we need to respond to,” said Danielle Kreeger, the partnership’s science director.

The existing management program sets about 70 specific goals for water use, land management, habitat, toxics, education, and monitoring. Water programs include encouraging the reuse of storm water for nonpotable purposes, while land-management goals include the establishment of a sustainable development strategy for the entire estuary region.

With the renewal of the agreement, the management plan will be updated over the next couple of years to reflect changing priorities, officials said. While its details won’t become clear until agreed to by all the partners, an indication of the future plan can be seen in a published series of “measurable goals” set by the partnership, said Kreeger.

The goals include limiting the net loss of wetlands to 15 percent of 2006 levels by 2040; stemming forest loss to less than 1 percent a year by 2025; and boosting the productivity of oyster beds by 25 percent by 2025.

Wetlands being lost at rapid rate

Coastal wetlands in particular are an urgent problem because they are disappearing at the rate of an acre a day, mostly due to sea-level rise but also because of development, Kreeger said.

With an evolving agenda and a wide range of partners with different interests, it can be challenging to reach agreement on policy goals, Kreeger said.

“It is difficult at times,” she said. “We’re all working toward the same goal, but when you have different states and the federal government and the Philadelphia Water Department, there are political sensitivities, particularly with regard to climate-change responses, that do tend to create lively discussions, and we do usually have some work to build the consensus.”

The partnership seeks to reach agreement in part through its biennial science and environmental summit, which brings together an array of environmental professionals to improve their understanding of system-wide challenges. The next meeting is scheduled for late January in Cape May.

Shawn Garvin, administrator for the EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, and one of the signers of the new pact, said climate change was among the biggest challenges faced by protectors of the estuary, one of 28 that are protected by the Congressionally designated National Estuary Program.

“We need to focus on how to protect our wetlands, and how to recognize the fact that the changing climate is affecting flooding in the estuary,” he said.

Wetlands need to be defended in order to maintain their value as a buffer to tidal flows, and as a filter for land-based pollutants, but they should be selected for protection in the context of rising seas that are expected to inundate those currently closest to the water line, Garvin said.

“We may want to look at the locations we invest in to help protect both the people inland, and the water quality,” he said. “We recognize that sea-level rise is going to change our shoreline and in some of those areas we may want to make more investments in wetlands, and in other areas we may decide the wetlands have a better chance of surviving if we move them a little bit further inland.”

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