Leading and responding to change in the Delaware River watershed

The Delaware River Basin Restoration Program is helping to make “America the Beautiful” a reality in the four-state watershed

By Wendi Weber, North Atlantic-Appalachian Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In early September, communities across the Delaware River Basin saw anywhere from three to 10 inches of rain as the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused flash flooding in tributaries, small streams, and low-lying areas.

a flooded street leads to a flooded apartment building and parking lot
Flooding in Betzwood, Pennsylvania from Tropical Storm Ida. Michael Stokes

Then in late October, it happened again. In just 48 hours, many communities north of Philadelphia were inundated with three to five inches of rain as an exceptionally powerful fall Nor’easter blew through the region. In the upper basin and along the mainstem of the Delaware River, the rainfall totals were even higher.

trail signs, picnic tables, and bike racks under brown water
Flooding at Betzwood Trailhead from Tropical Storm Ida. Michael Stokes

These are only the latest in a series of major flood events that have occurred in the basin in recent decades as intense storms become the norm, threatening lives, homes, infrastructure, and public health.

Flooding is just one symptom of a watershed in need of attention, where focused investments can help people and wildlife adapt to the extremes of a changing climate by restoring natural function and upgrading outdated infrastructure. It’s one of the reasons Congress authorized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Delaware River Basin Restoration Program in 2016, leading the Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to launch the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund in 2018.

a parking structure and many trees engulfed in rushing floodwaters
Flooding near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Michael Stokes

On September 20, we announced the fourth round of grant recipients under the Fund — 32 projects that move the needle in areas that are critical to the long-term health of the watershed and its inhabitants: reducing flooding and runoff, restoring fish and wildlife habitats, improving water quality, and enhancing safe recreational access for the public.

Several of these projects will invest in areas that have long endured chronic flooding and face a growing risk from climate change in the future. Like Glenolden in Philadelphia, which has received funding to revitalize Glenolden Community Park, an important recreational greenspace at the heart of the borough.

By diverting stormwater, restoring wetlands, and stabilizing the banks of Muckinipates Creek, the project will reduce the community’s vulnerability to climate-driven flood events and add 1.5 acres of wildlife habitat to a network of conserved lands in Philadelphia.

a peaceful creek and walking path on a sunny day
A walking trail alongside Darby Creek, downstream of the Muckinipates Creek. Heather Jerue/USFWS

Nearly a third of this year’s projects will directly address urgent flooding needs, either through stormwater management and wetlands restoration as in Glenolden, or through upgrading or removing outdated infrastructure, including obsolete dams.

Three other projects will zoom out to look at the big picture, identifying future restoration opportunities that will offer the greatest return on investment for alleviating flooding in sub watersheds, like the Neversink in New York.

Many of this year’s projects focus on another aspect of watershed resilience: community engagement and stewardship. Often, fostering connections between people and their watershed requires removing barriers that have kept some communities from accessing nature and benefiting from conservation. Increasing equity in access to public lands and in conservation decision-making is also an essential component of the Biden-Harris administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, a locally led and voluntary campaign to conserve, connect, and restore 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.

In 2021, we prioritized funding projects that address racial and economic disparities in benefits from and access to nature to help remove those kinds of barriers. As a result, 47 percent of this year’s projects will impact a community in which residents have been denied access to nature and natural resources in the past. Like in Camden, New Jersey, where the Upstream Alliance will lead an effort to engage communities in the vicinity of the Cooper River — once heavily polluted, now on the rebound — that have not previously had access to recreational opportunities on the waterways that are in their own backyard.

a man fishes from a boat ramp along the river as sail boats pass
A fisherman and boaters along the Cooper River in Camden, New Jersey. Sarah J/ Flickr Creative Commons

The grantee will work with partners to develop and promote recreational fishing and paddling programs, create job opportunities for local youth to lead outdoor programming, and to include residents in habitat restoration and community science efforts to keep their river healthy.

Partner-driven investments like these will produce positive ripple effects throughout their communities and across the watershed for generations to come. That’s because all of the projects supported by the Fund align with an underlying strategic framework that dovetails with existing efforts. The Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund was designed to complement the Delaware River Restoration Fund, launched in 2014 with support from the William Penn Foundation to clean up and restore polluted waters and improve aquatic habitat.

In combination, the two programs this year awarded $11.5 million to 41 projects that have generated an additional $13.5 million in matching funds. When this year’s grant projects are completed, the program will have restored more than 100 miles of streams and nearly 900 acres of wetlands and provided new or improved public access to nearly 5,000 acres of land.

With $26 million in funding from the recently passed infrastructure bill, the Service and our partners will have the opportunity to expand conservation actions and impact in the watershed and continue to forge long-term outcomes that are significantly greater than the sum of their parts.

an aerial view of a river and mountain as trees show their fall colors
Delaware River. Peter Miller/ Flickr Creative Comons

Four years after its creation, the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program has tremendous momentum. Ultimately, however, success will be measured in the improved lives of current and future generations who have greater access to a healthier watershed, cleaner water to drink, more resilient habitats and wildlife, and stronger economies supported by a vibrant and functioning Delaware River.

But in the Delaware River watershed, the partners who are committed to this vision are a force of nature — together, we too are exceptionally powerful.

Wendi Weber
North Atlantic-Appalachian Regional Director
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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We conserve nature in the northeast U.S. for the benefit of wildlife and the American people. Love your natural and wild places! Explore the world around you by hiking, fishing, hunting, and volunteering. More info at fws.gov/northeast

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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Conserving wildlife and habitats from Maine to Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania.

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