New Funds for NJ Groups to Combat Threats to Delaware River Basin’s Water Quality

Millions of dollars more for grassroots efforts in New Jersey and adjoining states to tackle dangers to vital source of drinking water

Delaware River Basin
A multistate initiative to improve water quality in the Delaware River Basin moved into a new phase yesterday with the announcement of another $42 million in private funding to help dozens of grassroots groups tackle the causes of pollution, runoff, deforestation and aquifer depletion.

The Delaware River Watershed Initiative got the new money from the William Penn Foundation which launched the program four years ago with the aim of coordinating the efforts of nongovernmental organizations that bring different approaches to defending water quality.

It focuses on eight regional “clusters” where water quality was given a baseline assessment by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and where the condition of waterways is monitored by experts.

Funds for Highlands and Kirkwood-Cohansey

In New Jersey, the program includes funding for clusters such as the Highlands and the Kirkwood-Cohansey area of South Jersey where local participants have been figuring out how best to work together since the initiative was launched in 2014.

It’s been a challenging but rewarding process deciding how to use the skills of each local group to produce a coherent effort, said Elliott Ruga, policy director of the Highlands Coalition, which is getting about $185,000 over the next three years, about the same as its funding for the first four years of the program.

The Highlands group, one of 11 organizations in that cluster, will use the money to play to its strengths as an advocate and a communicator of the need for better water quality in a region that is the source of drinking water for some 15 million people in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. It will spend part of the money to create a social media campaign and, in the second and third years of the program, on conferences to bring together the many different groups that want to defend the region’s water quality.

Ruga said the Highlands Coalition recognizes that it doesn’t have the skillset to, for example, preserve land like the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, another member of the Highlands cluster brought together by the DRWI. “They don’t know about community, they don’t know about advocacy, they know about finding willing sellers to purchase land from,” he said. But any communications deficit can be made up within the DRWI by the participation of the Highlands Coalition.

Not always easy to build trust

It hasn’t always been easy to build trust and collaboration between diverse partners, Ruga said, but the effort now seems to be paying off, and is poised to make bigger gains in Phase 2 of the initiative.

“We’ve been figuring out who we are, what we do and how we can really complement each other’s work so we are not just working as 11 organizations just doing our thing,” he said.

An action plan for the DRWI program in the Highlands cluster, for example, includes work on Lopatcong Creek where advocates aim to reduce pollutants by stepping up public education, using residents to monitor water quality, educating people about water use, and seeking policy change at local government level.

Local action underpins the program because it is seen as a more effective response to major threats to water quality like “nonpoint” source pollution — such as runoff from parking lots — than government regulation.

“We wanted to build a framework that would harness the enormous capacity of conservation organizations to work together on a shared approach, and to see whether that critical mass could effect greater change,” said Janet Haas, board chair of the William Penn Foundation. She argued that the model will help the Delaware basin and could be replicated elsewhere.

Protecting land by buying it

Across the four states, the program’s land-protection efforts have included the purchase of some 19,600 acres since 2014, and an anticipated 20,000 acres in the next three years. It also works to restore land through projects like planting trees on river banks to control erosion, or building rain gardens to curb stormwater runoff and improve the quality of water-replenishing aquifers.

In Pennsylvania, for example, projects include the Wildlands Conservancy, a land trust in the headwaters of the Lehigh River — an important tributary of the Delaware River — where 500 acres were added with funding from the DRWI.

Funding recipients include the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC) which will be receiving about $400,000 in the new phase of the program after getting about $500,000 over the last four years, said executive director Jennifer Coffey.

ANJEC’s work with the DRWI has included a project in Woodstown, Salem County where it has worked with local groups including a scout troop, Vietnam vets and the town council to build a rain garden and a porous parking lot. The new works capture polluted stormwater runoff that is filtered through layers of rock and soil before going into the aquifer, Coffey said.

Farm runoff, faulty septic systems

Overall water quality in the Kirkwood-Cohansey cluster is threatened by runoff from farms and development, as well as faulty septic systems, forest fragmentation and “irresponsible” off-road vehicle use in some places, according to a regional overview for the DRWI. But threats have been curbed in the last four years by the protection of some 5,000 acres and the restoration of about half that number, it said.

DRWI funding allows ANJEC to continue its work of building community engagement and advocating for better public policy, Coffey said. “We work with municipalities, counties, and state elected officials on policy that we know has a proven track record of improving water quality,” she said.

Beyond the funding, DRWI participants benefit from being part of a bigger organization that works on diverse aspects of the same challenge, Coffey said.

“It’s also being part of a larger initiative that recognizes the historic, cultural and environmental value of the Delaware River, and brings people together to be part of something bigger than themselves,” she said.