The ‘Big Think’ with Dave Wolanski
A series of conversations with people who have worked in and for the watershed, sharing their expertise and knowledge.

| November 29, 2022

Dave Wolanski
Dave Wolanski, formerly of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

David Wolanski worked for the State of Delaware on surface water quality issues and reporting for 24 years.

How’s the water quality in the watershed/Delaware River now as compared to 50 years ago? How does it look in the future?

In the 1970s, my parents would take our family from Dover, Del., to New England to visit my dad’s family. We used to cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge from Delaware into New Jersey and we could smell the 20-mile dead zone in the Delaware River that happened every summer due to minimally or poorly treated municipal wastewater that was discharged to the river because the solution to pollution was dilution.

I had no idea it was the river: Tween and teen me used to think it was just how New Jersey smelled from air pollution discharges. (Sorry, New Jerseyans!) The passage of the Clean Water Act and the funding to implement treatment plant upgrades cut the pollution enough to eliminate the dead zone and restored dissolved oxygen levels enough to levels not seen in many years. It also stopped the smell when the dead zone disappeared! 

The DRBC, member states and dischargers have been working on reducing PCB levels for more than a decade with reductions in discharges from wastewater treatment plants on the order of 60-70 percent. This is outstanding news, and potentially a model for other pollutants.
Cooperation between stakeholders and adequate funding have been keystones to improving water quality, and will be in the future.

We’ve gotten the low-hanging fruit of the first few rounds of point source treatment upgrades. Now we need to work on nonpoint sources for nutrients and legacy pollutants like PCBs and pesticides that were banned years ago but are still widespread in the environment and make the fish in our river and bay too risky to eat regularly. Point sources will be asked to further reduce their loads of nutrients and legacy pollutants too. 

Top three, five or pick a number of the challenges/threats to watersheds — either local or the whole Delaware River watershed.

I’d say the major challenge to the watersheds of the river and bay is… people. More and more people are developing in more and more places. This leads to destruction of habitat like forests and wetlands, which leads to lower water quality for all of us. More development leads to more impervious surfaces, which leads to changed hydrology and pollutants washed from the land into receiving waters, thus degrading them. 

There are going to need to be a lot of folks working together to find solutions like land use plans that stick, retrofitting treatment plants, growth sectors and sectors perpetually protected from development, installation of buffers to reduce nonpoint pollution and a myriad of other approaches. 

Another people-related issue is climate change. That’s a long-term thing and I don’t know that we can address it just in the river and bay states. But we sure as heck need to be planning for impacts now. 

These things are all addressable with motivated leadership and consistent funding. 

What triggers the “get-off-my-lawn” pissed-off response? It’s OK to have a list!

  • 50 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, we still have public and private dischargers whose modus operandi is to say that if regulators can’t prove a harmful impact, then they can’t require regulating/reducing the discharges.

A few years ago, I was dismayed to learn that some dischargers were discharging up to 35mg/l of ammonia in their discharges under this theory into the watershed. As far as I know, this is still true. Waste water permits are issued under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. The E stands for elimination. 35 mg/l of ammonia in wastewater is not eliminating enough… 

  • DRBC is funded by dues from the states and the federal government. Some states and the feds are years behind in their funding commitments. One has to wonder how important the DRBC and its mission is if the partners aren’t all paying their fair share. 
  • Chesapeake Bay funding by the feds is way over Delaware Bay funding. I know that the Delaware Bay programs have recently gotten some special funding, but it’s disheartening to see the differences in consistent funding levels in these equally important estuaries.
  • Delays in reducing waste loads for more perfect water quality models. Yes, modeling is important, but they’re never going be accurate to 3 decimal places. If the difference between one model and the other is a few percentage points in reductions, but no changes are started for years to get the better model, it looks like they’re just delay tactics. I’m reminded of a politician in the Chesapeake Bay region who said we’ve never been in danger of over-regulating nutrient discharges to the Chesapeake Bay. I know that municipal dischargers have to balance water treatment costs with pressing needs like streets, schools and police, but not updating technology for years on end isn’t good stewardship. 
  • I recently heard a quote on a podcast about the need to start implementing things and stop studying them without action. The quote was something to the effect of we need to stop studying to write ever-more precise obituaries of ecosystems. 

Another quote that really influenced me by Collete Pinchon Battle was that in order to start acting on global warming, we need to first admit we’ve taken too much. Related to that, I was talking with a friend about some global warming issues and how we’re seeing things that are pretty disturbing. My friend pointed to his grandchildren nearby and said he hoped they never came to him and said, “How could your generation fail to act, when you knew better?”

A visitor from outer space might conclude that if we know better, and fail to act, apparently, we just don’t care. 

What do we already know that we’re not acting on?

We know there is readily available treatment for nutrients in wastewater discharges that will reduce nutrient loads. Because most of the processes produce more sludge, the sludge tends to bind some other pollutants we don’t want to see in the waters either. It’s a win-win to do better treatment for nutrients. 

We know that buffers on streams and rivers reduce nonpoint loads of all kinds of pollutants, but we continue to allow development right to the edges of water bodies and have minimal or no regulations requiring buffers. We know of brownfields and other sites with pollutants in the soils that eventually end up in waterbodies and we haven’t acted to clear them. 

Any signs of hope?

We have seen progress from the 70s. We are seeing more federal funding coming into the watershed. We are seeing a very slow process to consider changes in dissolved oxygen criteria and nutrient loading criteria nearing an end. I’m hoping on a personal level that the criteria are tightened, pollution loads are reduced and sturgeon and other aquatic life make strong comebacks.

Since you live way down in Delaware, do you care/ should you care about what happens upstream? How far upstream? All the way to the NYC reservoirs? Why, or why not?

With regard to upstream and downstream issues, folks are always going to be most concerned about what’s happening in their back yard. Only a few moments of consideration would show that they’d have to look upstream to see what might be affecting their local waters. Thinking about upstream sources and their duty to protect the local waters implies that we also have to look downstream to ourselves. We don’t want to be doing something to others we wouldn’t want done to ourselves.

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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