Water quality, natural habitats, and public access in the Delaware River Basin would get more federal protection under a proposed law that’s expected to be reintroduced to Congress in coming weeks.
The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act would implement a conservation program to improve water quality, manage fish stocks, control flooding, and improve recreational opportunities in the area that supplies water to some 16 million people in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
If the bill becomes law, the current efforts of organizations such as the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and the Delaware River Basin Commission, along with state agencies and nonprofits, would be coordinated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The measure also would create a competitive grant and technical assistance program to groups working in the watershed.
The bill aims to adopt “science-based restoration and protection activities” that meet measurable conservation goals and do not result in a net gain of federal employees, according to the most recent version of the proposed legislation, which was introduced in 2013.
Supporters, led by Delaware U.S Rep. John Carney and Sen. Tom Carper, want the watershed to enjoy federal protection similar to that of the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.
They argue that the Delaware basin, which stretches from upstate New York to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, is underfunded compared with other major watersheds, and deserves more federal support in light of its ecological and economic value, and its status as a major source of drinking water for the two largest cities on the East Coast — New York and Philadelphia.
“The DRBCA would clearly affirm the Delaware River watershed is a national priority, worthy of the attention and resources currently afforded to other major watersheds across the country,” supporters said in a statement.
They note that the Delaware, the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, is home to more than 200 species of fish that support some $200 million annually in tourism and recreational activities. At the watershed’s southern end, the Delaware Bay supports the world’s largest population of horseshoe crabs, and is a globally important site for migrating shorebirds.
The call for more federal support has been fueled by the fact that the federal government has withheld its share of funding for the DRBC — an interstate agency that manages water supplies for the four Basin states plus the federal government — for every year but one since 1997.
FWS coordination of all the Delaware basin conservation groups would end any duplication of effort and maximize the chances of winning significant funding for environmental programs, the bill’s backers say.
“Oftentimes, the groups are proposing very similar actions to different foundations so you are getting a lot of work but not necessarily work that adds up to a larger whole,” said Larry Niles, a former biologist with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and now a consultant who is working to restore beaches along the state’s Delaware Bay shore.
Niles argued that the FWS would also raise the standard of conservation work.
“That is the gold standard,” he said. “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is now the last hope for wildlife and conservation in many parts of the country.”
He argued that many state environment agencies are controlled by groups such as farmers or hunters but that FWS runs a conservation-led policy.
“To have the federal government create an infrastructure for the management and coordination of conservation would be the best thing that could happen for the Delaware Bay,” he said.
The bill was first introduced by former Delaware Congressman Mike Castle in 2010, and has been reintroduced three times since then but hasn’t gained sufficient traction to become law.
Now, sources say there are 21 cosponsors on both sides of the aisle, including four from New Jersey and another seven from the other Basin states of New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
In the House, the initiative is being led by Congressman John Carney of Delaware who is gathering cosponsors, and expects to reintroduce the bill in early March, according to his spokesman, Albert Shields.
Kim Beidler, project coordinator for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, an advocacy organization funded by the William Penn Foundation and supported by New Jersey Audubon, said the bill represents a major opportunity to give federal protection to the watershed.
Asked whether it would duplicate or displace the work of the DRBC, Beidler said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would complement that agency’s activities rather than replacing them.
For example, while the DRBC might mitigate flood risk by managing reservoir releases, an organization receiving a grant under the proposed law could work to restore a floodplain or develop green infrastructure to lessen the impact of floods, Beidler said.
“The intent of the DRBCA isn’t to duplicate authorities that are already carried out by others, but rather to support coordinated and complementary restoration and protection work,” she said.
The DRBC doesn’t typically do the kind of work like planting vegetation or restoring habitat that would be required by the bill if it became law, Beidler said.
DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert echoed support for the bill, saying the agency has backed previous versions, and will do so again this time.
“The legislation as introduced since 2010 would not duplicate or conflict with the DRBC’s responsibilities,” Rupert wrote in an email. “Instead, it would enhance collaboration of conservation efforts underway in the basin, and build on those efforts.”
He noted that the bill would establish a competitive matching-grant program for conservation initiatives that would leverage federal funds.
Maya van Rossum, who heads the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the bill would represent an overdue boost to the area’s environmental health.
“For a long time, the Delaware River has not received level of attention of attention and respect that it deserves, so this is a very important step,” she said.