4 of the biggest threats facing the Delaware River, according to experts

[This article was originally published by LehighValleyLive.com]

The Delaware River watershed covers 13,600 square miles in four states, stretching 330 densely populated miles from New York’s Catskills to the Atlantic Ocean. Getting together everyone with a stake in its health takes some effort.

But for two days last week, more than 250 environmental advocates gathered in Allentown – not far from the Lehigh River, one of the Delaware’s largest tributaries – to pool resources and plot a course for the future of the watershed. It was the seventh such annual forum.

Federal and state agencies were represented. So were regional groups devoted to the river and its tributaries. Native tribes and small business owners contributed, suggesting new partnerships and avenues for outreach.

Amid the small meetings, large lunches and field trips, we pulled aside organizers, panelists and experts to find out what they see as the biggest threats to the Delaware River watershed.


It’s an ever-present concern, but the forum had a particular emphasis on plastics: If you live in the watershed, you community may – sooner or later – be talking about banning some forms of it.

Sandra Meola, director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed: “Our No. 1 issue (is) protecting water quality from various threats: polluted stormwater runoff; plastics pollution, which is an emerging contaminant; and also … making sure that all communities have access to clean water and (have) public access to their open space.”

Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions: “ANJEC is particularly focused on plastic pollution which is an emerging issue that is in the forefront of many people’s minds. … We are working with municipalities, counties and states to ban … single-use plastic bags; to ban outdoor intentional balloon releases; to find alternatives and ban the polystyrene coffee cups, soup cups, food containers; and to find better alternatives for single-use bottles (and) encourage reusable bottles.

“The recycling stream is really crashing. Those countries — China, India, Malaysia — who used to take United States and European recycling materials are no longer taking our waste products so we need to find better options. It’s a very solvable problem. We don’t have to leave an ocean that has more plastic than fish to our children. … This can be a one-generation problem that we fix now. That’s why we’re really focused on that: because it’s a change we can make and we know how to do it.”

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Another persistent issue, climate change is already having tangible effects on the southern end of the watershed.

Steve Tambini, Delaware River Basin Commission executive director: “When you think about climate change, you think about more of everything: more extremes, potentially more flow, more temperature extremes. But the one that seems to have a great impact, we’re already beginning to see sea-level rise in the tidal portion of the Delaware River estuary. We expect that to accelerate. …

“The way we manage flow in the river, we make sure that there’s enough freshwater coming downstream to repel the salt that wants to come upstream. The Delaware River and the estuary is not dammed, so if you’ve got a little bit more, due to sea-level rise, sea water coming upstream, (it) presents a little bit of a pressure in terms of how do we offset that to make sure that the drinking water for the city of Philadelphia and South Jersey are protected, groundwater is protected and the habitats that rely upon the freshwater-saltwater interface (are) protected as well. So that’s a big challenge looking forward.”


With more construction come more potential runoff and pollution, but also disruptions in habitat. Conservationists need to know how best to plan for it.

Mike Slattery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Delaware River basin coordinator: “I think the largest issue is our changing landscape. That landscape changes in terms of its ecological function for a variety of reasons: changing climate conditions; changing and accelerating land use development; changing patterns of energy exploration and use and delivery. All these things are large-scale stressors that have the potential to fragment habitat at a rate and at a scale that we’ve never had to deal with before. …

“Staying ahead of that, being able to forecast where the landscape will continue to be suitable and targeting our conservation and restoration in those places – so that we’re relatively more certain that our investments and our work will have durability and be lasting in the face of those huge-scale predicted changes – that’s really what we are trying to do now and it’s presenting some big challenges.”

Grant La Rouche, National Wildlife Federation director of conservation partnerships: “I think the biggest problem for the watershed right now … is the wildlife crisis that we’re facing. There have been massive declines in wildlife. … Encroaching development and a number of other factors have pushed back the (bog turtle) population and made them threatened federally.

“But there are other stories of shad coming back up the Delaware. We still need a ton of work on things like that, on trout in the Upper Delaware where we’ve seen losses because of different water levels. There’s a host of different wildlife that are out there that need our help and this conference, this watershed forum is bringing people together to help solve the problems that surround that.”


If there was one continuous thread throughout the forum, it was the importance of getting many disparate groups together in one place to talk about their ideas, successes and struggles and how to use that shared experience to shape policy at home.

Nathan Boon, William Penn Foundation senior program officer for watershed protection: “Part of what’s unique about the Delaware River watershed is the fact that it spans four states, hundreds of municipalities, different Environmental Protection Agency regions, so many different political jurisdictions that can end up getting pulled in many different directions. So I think the biggest issue facing the watershed are those divisions that those structures impose upon us. … This is one integrated system, (an) interconnected system from downstream at the estuary at the state of Delaware, New Jersey up through Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton up into the Catskills of New York state.

“Broad coordination is necessary. We face threats from multiple sources, from different pollution sources, threats of forest loss from encroaching development and sprawl, runoff from industrialized agriculture, the proliferation of plastics, litter, other persistent contaminants in our environment — the threats are manyfold so the partnerships and collaborations must also be manyfold.”

Sam Masotto, owner of Bonn Place Brewing Co. in Bethlehem:“What I see we can do to change that is to fight the good fight and increase awareness of not only climate change, of course, but the awareness of legislations that are in effect that could be reversed, and that, I think, could push it to the [point] of no return, or at least make it way more difficult to repair. …

“If you want to make it more appealing for the people who are really into the capitalist side of it: agritourism and things like this cannot be sustained without a sustained, conserved watershed. … As a business owner, we like the use the brewery as a vehicle for these types of changes, or at least this type of awareness.”

RuthAnn Purchase, water advocate and cultural mapping program manager for the Lenape Tribe of Delaware: “Humans are not the center of everything. Really we don’t decide much about anything when it comes to nature. Nature informs us. So the river knows the truth. The river knows how small we are. And we as humans can get with the program. We can learn to live with the flow, and with the changes. …

“These organizations represented at this particular conference are struggling to get that community outreach. They’re struggling to figure out how do we get more minorities involved. Well, creating that safe space means honoring and respecting every life, honoring and respecting every question. When we have that safe space, we won’t be afraid to change together.”

About Steve Novak, LehighValleyLive.com

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