People and boats on the Delaware River
Paddlers using the recently renovated Highland access in Sullivan County, N.Y. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

New access helps residents to have fun on the Delaware River

| August 8, 2023

An almost impossible-to-understand federal program has touched down on the New York shore of the Delaware River and given residents improved access to the river.

Some paddlers last week were already taking full advantage of the new access on Route 97 in Highland in Sullivan County, while about 100 feet away about 50 people from different organizations gathered to celebrate the completion of the improvements.

Right off the bat, our host, Jeff Skelding, executive director of Friends of the Upper Delaware River, addressed the thorny problem and did a call and response so we’d at least know its name:

“Delaware River Basin Restoration Program,” he said.

“Delaware River Basin Restoration Program,” we responded. Three times.

It’s the way federal dollars reach on-the-ground projects in the four basin states: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

One of the special guests, U.S. Rep. Marc Molinaro (NY-19), explained how we got to this access site.

“The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act,” he said, “unlocked tremendous federal resources, and with it, the full potential of the Delaware River Basin. We now have the ability to undertake impactful initiatives to improve water quality, climate resiliency, flood mitigation, wildlife protection, and build projects like this boat launch to support recreational activities.”

Two men and a woman at a podium
New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther; Jeff Skelding, executive director, Friends of the Upper Delaware River; and U.S. Congressman Marc Molinaro. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Previously the site was a wide spot in the road with what one speaker called a “goat path” leading to the river, which you couldn’t see.

Now there’s a parking area with gravel on top of metal grid work, room for 10 cars, an asphalt path — ADA accessible — leading down a gentle slope to the river, and a bunch of really big rocks to sit on and a shallow spot to haul your kayak up once you’re done.

The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act explained

Back in 2016, Congress passed Delaware River Basin Conservation Act. It created the structure for funding from the federal government through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/National Fish and Wildlife Foundation called the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program. (Remember the name?)

The projects are reviewed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and, with its approval, a project can get 50 percent of a project’s costs from the program.

That 50 percent has to be matched with local funds, which is an incentive to create partnerships and those partnerships — in addition to the new access site — were the reason for the celebration.

Since 2018, the DRBRP has awarded over $5 million in grants in the New York portion of the Delaware River watershed.

The DRBRP (aka “DR. BURP”) has a unique twist in New York since last year, when the state budget included $650,000 for watershed planning and on-the-ground project funding. 

So, small municipalities like Sullivan County can boost their resources and get to that magic 50 percent mark by using those funds.

“We thank Congressman Molinaro, Assemblywomen Gunther, and Governor Hochul for their commitment to the Upper Delaware River by leading the way in providing state investments that compliment federal restoration efforts,” said Kelly Knutson, director for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed

“As a crucial headwater region, the Upper Delaware River directly influences the water quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem stability downstream,” he said. “The New York state funding can be leveraged as match for DRBRP projects, expanding access to resources for projects in small, rural, and disadvantaged communities.”

Knutson also said that starting this year, some low-income communities — as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — can submit a proposal for a 90/10 split, making the money more available to more communities.

“The Upper Delaware River has an exciting new story to tell about these federal and state funding resources,” Skelding said. “Years of coalition building, public outreach and policy advocacy efforts are starting to pay off, and we need to keep up the momentum.” 

River advocates also stressed the importance of a continued commitment from the New York Legislature and the governor’s office for Upper Delaware River conservation funding.

“I am so proud to have fought for this funding in the New York State budget” said New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther. “These types of river protection projects ensure that our greatest natural resources are available for people to enjoy for generations to come. I want to thank everyone at FUDR and all the Delaware River advocates for their tireless dedication.” 

Each year the money that funds the program has to be allocated by Congress, so Molinaro’s support is key, as is the support of the bipartisan Congressional Delaware River Watershed Caucus

That caucus is headed up by U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE.) Molinaro is a member.

“While today is a celebration of this progress,” Molinaro said, “it’s also a recognition that there’s more to do. We must reauthorize the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act to ensure this natural treasure is here long into the future, and I’m proud to be advocating in Congress to get this done.”

A group of men and women
Front row: Laurie Ramie, executive director of the Upper Delaware Council; Nadia Rajsz, Sullivan County legislator; and Emily Baldauff of Trout Unlimited. Back row, left to right: Aileen Gunther, New York State assemblywoman; Jeff Skelding, Friends of the Upper Delaware River; U.S. Rep. Marc Molinaro; Christina Ryder, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Kelly Knutson, Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed; Lindsey Kurnath, National Park Service; Heather Jacksy, Sullivan County Planning PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE
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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