Delaware River Watershed: It’s Healthy, but Significant Threats Are Looming

Vital resource for millions of people needs more aggressive protections, advocates contend

Tim Dillingham of the American Littoral Society and Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper
For a resource delivering drinking water daily to 15 million people, the Delaware River Watershed faces a range of issues to intimidate anyone who recognizes the consequences of squandering its multiple assets.

Climate change, fish advisories for contaminated species, disputes over how and where water supplies are allocated, and an ongoing debate over how natural gas development impacts water quality are just a few of the issues vying to be addressed.

“There’s not one issue if we take that on, that’s going to make everything wonderful,’’ Carol Collier, a senior advisor for watershed management and policy at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University, said Friday at an event sponsored by NJ Spotlight and State Impact.

The event at Camden County College brought together conservationists, policymakers, public officials, and industry executives to discuss ways to protect and preserve the watershed and the largest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi.

For the most part, Collier and a panel agreed the watershed is faring relatively well despite the threats posed by loss of coastal wetlands, forested expanses in its upper basin, and the competition for its clean water.

‘It can be at a tipping point’

“You hear about the Hudson, you hear about the Chesapeake, the (Delaware) river is doing okay. It doesn’t have some of the problems of the others,’’ said Collier, a former executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, “but it can be at a tipping point if we don’t get people’s attention.’’

Last week, the Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate agency that oversees water management of the 330-mile river and basin, got some people’s attention when it announced it would begin drafting rules to address natural gas development in the watershed. It sparked a new round in the debate over drilling, also known as fracking.

With plentiful supplies of the fuel in Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania and other states, the agency said it would consider imposing a ban on drilling within the basin. But the DRBC also will look at imposing new regulations for allowing the transfer of water for drilling outside the basin — and how wastewater from those drilling operations is handled in the watershed.

Both environmentalists, who long have lobbied for such a ban, and industry officials panned the announcement. At Friday’s event, Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, called “wholly inappropriate’’ any move to transfer water from the basin for drilling for the fossil fuel.

If the water resources are to be protected, others on the panel argued more focus needs to be placed on what is happening on land located within the 13,539 square-mile basin, particularly in its upper portions where its headwaters are.

Perpetual sprawl

“We know what the problems are,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “Fundamentally, it comes down to physical changes in the landscape. We are seeing, unfortunately, perpetual sprawl and all the problems that come with that.’’

That means protecting the forests and open spaces that have not been lost to development, panelists said. There was some agreement that the DRBC should be more aggressive in overseeing land-use decisions that affect water quality, but some questions about how effective that might be. “It could do it beautifully if they chose to do it,’’ van Rossum said. “The reality of the DRBC embracing it though is rather slim.’’

The commission and others also need to be more proactive about climate change, according to Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. Collier cited a study that suggested sea level rise and a record drought would push saltwater from the lower estuary several miles above water intakes for the city of Philadelphia, which relies on the river for its drinking water.

Despite the myriad problems facing the basin, some were optimistic about an opportunity to improve conditions.

“The Delaware River is a real success story in terms of recovery,’’ said Jennifer Adkins, executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. “If we want to keep going, we need to keep doing what we have been doing and we need to do better. We need to be innovative. We need to get really creative and get better at managing the water resources.’’