The U.S. Congress passed the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act (DRBCA) on December 10, 2016 as part of a larger legislative package known as the Water Infrastructure Improvements Act for the Nation (WIIN) Act, previously called the Water Resources Development Act. The WIIN Act was passed by a majority of 78 to 21 in the Senate and 360 to 61 in the House of Representatives.
The Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, which unites nearly 100 organizations working throughout the region, has been at the forefront of advocating for the legislation in Congress. “Seeing the DRBCA enacted has been a top priority for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed since its founding in 2012,” said Madeline Urbish, Director of the Coalition. “The Delaware River Basin is a nationally significant region and deserving of the federal recognition this legislation imparts. We look forward to working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other watershed stakeholders to develop a basin-wide strategy for protecting and restoring the resources of our region for future generations.”
The Delaware River Basin is one of our nation’s most important river systems with over 15 million (5% of the U.S. population) depending on it for clean water. The River and its tributaries flow through nearly a dozen National Parks and historic sites, providing world-class recreational opportunities from wild trout fishing in the Upper Delaware to watching the remarkable bird migrations across Delaware Bay. Despite the immense historic, cultural, and ecological significance the Delaware River, the region has not previously received the federal support other major watersheds in our country enjoy. “Thanks to the commitment of Senator Tom Carper and Congressman John Carney, who led the charge as primary sponsors, the Delaware River Watershed is one step closer to a having a conservation and restoration strategy that continues to put a focus on the importance of clean water for our entire region,” said Brenna Goggin, Director of Advocacy at the Delaware Nature Society.
“The Delaware River Basin is an ecological and economic powerhouse for Delaware and our neighboring states." said Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), primary sponsor of the bill in the Senate. "The basin is a vital watershed that contributes $25 billion to our region's economy and fuels our local communities by supporting jobs in the maritime, agriculture, tourism, hunting, fishing, and wildlife industries. This legislation will improve coordination among federal, state, and local partners who work to protect and preserve the basin, and ensure that partners can work together to protect the health of this vital resource for generations to come.”
The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act establishes the non-regulatory Delaware River Basin Restoration Program, to be administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with a competitive, matching grant and technical assistance program to implement on-the-ground conservation work throughout the watershed. The Delaware River Basin Restoration Program will create a coordinated approach for identifying, prioritizing, and implementing restoration and protection projects throughout the watershed.
“The establishment of a Delaware River Restoration Program will provide critical support for locally-led projects that protect the unique cold water ecosystem and pristine headwaters essential to revitalizing the economies in the Upper Delaware Region,” remarked Jeffrey Skelding, Executive Director of Friends of the Upper Delaware River, which serves as the Coalition’s outreach lead in New York.
The future of the Delaware River Watershed is undeniably at risk. The watershed’s location in the densely populated mid-Atlantic region means that population pressures will continue to increase, particularly with one of the four states, New Jersey, which is projected to be the first state to reach build-out in the nation. Although considerable steps have been taken to control point source pollutants along the river, problems associated with legacy pollutants such as PCBs and nonpoint source pollutants such as fertilizers and stormwater runoff pose major threats to the water quality and habitats in the region. These hazards are compounded by the changing climate our region is already experiencing.
The bill passed in the final days of this congressional session, before its primary sponsor in the House takes on a new role as the governor of Delaware. “The passage of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act is one of my proudest moments as Delaware's Representative,” stated Congressman John Carney (D-DE-At large). “Congressman Castle first introduced this legislation in 2010 and in 2011 he passed the baton on to me. This legislation is crucial to the health of Delaware's waterways and, in turn, our communities and our economy. I'm proud to end my tenure in the House of Representatives on such a high note, and I appreciate the tireless work of the Delaware Delegation, especially Congressman Castle, and the many others that made this bill a reality.”
While there are many nonprofit organizations working throughout the four states of the Watershed to conserve, protect, and restore its critical resources, declining budgets and an increasing need on the horizon highlight the need for an efficient and coordinated approach to protecting the river basin that the DRBCA will create.
Coalition outreach lead and NJ League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Ed Potosnak added, “In an era of increasingly constrained budgets, a coordinated program will better prioritize limited resources and strengthen private investment to address our region’s most pressing environmental issues from safeguarding our drinking water supply to enhancing resiliency.”
“We are pleased to see Congress advance the Delaware Basin Restoration Program demonstrating its responsiveness to their constituents who have called for dedicated federal support for this invaluable resource,” added Jay Andrews of PennFuture and the Coalition’s state outreach lead in Pennsylvania.
The Coalition will work in the new year to ensure the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program is funded and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can begin its implementation as quickly as possible. The Coalition will also work to ensure the voice of the non-profit community is included in the development of a basin-wide strategy as part of the program.
The Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed unites organizations working throughout the region to enhance their capacity to effectively advocate for protecting and restoring the Delaware River Basin. It works to achieve this mission by coordinating communications, messages, and actions fostering accountability for success at the federal, state, and local levels. The Coalition is coordinated by New Jersey Audubon in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation.