Conservationists Welcome More Federal Funding for Delaware River Basin

Jon Hurdle | January 7, 2020 | Energy & Environment, Water
Increase will help projects like dam removal and restoration of habitat
Forty percent of New Jersey’s land lies within the basin.

Advocates for projects like the restoration of bog turtle habitat or the removal of dams from tributaries in the Delaware River Basin can now apply for more federal funding after the announcement of a 62% increase in money for conservation programs in the current fiscal year.

Just before Christmas, Congress appropriated $9.7 million for the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program, a federal initiative that helps nonprofits and others perform on-the-ground projects to improve water quality, restore wildlife habitat, and provide better public access to waterways and other natural resources.

The new funding is still modest compared with long-running federal support for similar environmental systems such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, but was warmly welcomed by advocates who noted that the program is only in its third year and may not yet be widely known among the groups that stand to benefit.

“This funding is tremendously significant because it is such a big increase,” said Sandra Meola, director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, a nonprofit that coordinates the conservation efforts of local groups and educates citizens. “To see such a new program to receive increased funds is really something to be proud of. We’ve been advocating for $10 million for two years now, and now we have it.”

She attributed the increase to bipartisan support from the basin’s advocates in Congress.

Since the passage of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act at the end of 2016, the program has attracted funding of $5 million in fiscal year 2018 and $6 million in FY2019, allowing local groups seeking grants of $50,000-$250,000 to make a start on their projects.

Undoing damage

They include the restoration in Salem County of 50 acres of habitat favored by the four-inch-long bog turtle, whose population has plunged because of poaching, development and road building, and is now classified by New Jersey as endangered even though it is officially the state reptile.

That project, run by New Jersey Audubon, attracted federal funding of $88,300 over the last two years. Scientists hope they can rebuild the population by creating the right conditions for the turtles to thrive, and by persuading local farmers to set aside suitable areas. In the summer of 2019, only nine turtles were known to live at the Salem County site.

Outside Hackettstown in Warren County, the Musconetcong Watershed Association has received $96,400 in federal money to remove a dam — a project that will improve water quality, reduce flooding, and allow spawning fish to return to sections of the river that structures have stopped them reaching for 200 years or more.

While it’s too soon to tell whether projects like recovering the bog turtle will succeed, the funding has supported 53 of them so far, and the latest financial boost  can be expected to increase that number, Meola said.

“For FY20, I would like to see the number of proposals increase significantly,” she said. “If we can see an increase of 60 percent to reflect the funding, that would be great.”

In its two years of operation, the program has awarded $8.74 million in local conservation grants, attracting $12.04 million matching funds from private sources such as nonprofits and individual donations, for a total of $20.78 million, the coalition said. Results have included the restoration of 251 acres of flood plain; the enhancement of 119 acres of wetlands and some 3,700 acres of forest habitat. About 200 acres of land have been opened up for public access. Advocates argue that the program will help to ensure clean drinking water for some 13 million people who depend on supplies from the basin and will also help the economies of the four states — New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware — that occupy the watershed.

Thousands of jobs

In New Jersey, 40% of the state’s land and 22% of its population lie within the basin, while some 62,000 jobs in industries like fishing, tourism and water utilities are directly tied to the Delaware, according to the coalition.

Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said the new funding shows the federal government recognizes the importance of defending the Delaware basin even though funding is a fraction of that received by areas like the Chesapeake and the Great Lakes.

“It’s well overdue that the Delaware River gets the recognition it deserves,” said Potosnak, whose group does public-policy work on conservation. “It’s a really important resource for our own vitality but also for our economy. Now we are seeing the appropriations happen which really gets the boots on the ground.”

The coalition’s Meola predicted the new funding will attract applications from existing projects as well as new proposals. But she declined to predict what level of funding her organization might seek in coming years, saying that will depend on the response to the government’s new requests for proposals, which are expected in February.

“If we have a demand for $80 million or $320 million, we can go back to congress and say: ‘For FY21, we are going to ask for ‘x’ dollar amount, based on those projects,’” she said.

Applications are decided by a committee that includes Meola plus representatives of local groups including the Delaware River Basin Commission and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. She encouraged applications from nonprofits and other potential grant recipients like universities or municipalities, and said the process is clearly laid out by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which has the final say in awarding grants.

“A lot of folks think that applying for a federal grant is a strenuous process but if you follow this really clear outline, it should be OK,” she said.