Right about now, I should be kayaking down the Delaware River somewhere south of the Delaware Water Gap toward Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, where I would have set up camp with about 100 other paddlers at the end of the fifth day of the 2020 Delaware River Sojourn.
Coordinated by a team of organizations that work in the watershed — including the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Delaware River Basin Commission, the Upper Delaware Preservation Coalition, and the Brodhead Watershed Association, just to name a few — the annual Sojourn offers a week of curated paddling along iconic stretches of the upper, middle, lower, and tidal Delaware River.
It also offers the logistical support that makes that possible: transportation, catered meals, and a safe place to pitch your tent at night among people who have become new friends and partners over the course of several days on the water.
But after 25 consecutive years, the 2020 Delaware River Sojourn was cancelled due to the coronavirus. So instead of sitting in my kayak, I’m sitting at my desk, sharing with you what happens when a group of people come together to paddle in the same direction. And what brings them together in the first place.
“The Delaware is my watershed,” a woman named Chris explained while sharing her coffee with me one morning during last year’s Sojourn. “I live about a mile from it, in Philly. The water sort of calls to me and draws me. Anything I can do to help bring some exposure to keeping the water clean, safe, and enjoyable for everybody is good.”
The Sojourn is a confluence of those values. It connects participants from near and far with organizations that are working to support the vitality of the river and its communities, and it also connects those organizations with each other.
“It’s a different way of networking with your partners, when you are surrounded by the resource,” said Eric Schrading, the project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s New Jersey Field Office, who joined the Sojourn for a day last year. “It leads to conversations that don’t happen on conference calls and at meetings.”
Through short presentations and programs sprinkled throughout the paddling experience, organizations of all shapes and sizes — Friends of the Upper Delaware, the Sierra Club, New Jersey Department of Conservation and Recreation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — talk about how they are working to protect the watershed resources that call to and sustain us, and why engaged citizens are critical to their success.
“It’s not just about: Let’s go have fun on the river,” explained Janet Sweeney, Director of the Northeast Region for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, during her lunch-time presentation at last year’s Sojourn. “Bringing people to the river makes them love it, and you protect what you love. That’s what we believe in, and that’s why we have supported the Sojourn all of these years.”
The Delaware River has come a long way over the years precisely because so many people love and need this river. Seventy five years ago, the Delaware was mired with sewage and industrial pollution. This spring, American Rivers named the Delaware its River of the Year, crediting the “countless local individuals and groups who have worked for decades on the river’s behalf.”
Their collective momentum has brought about legal protection, collaboration, innovation, and recently, more funding to keep them going. Comprising 150 watershed partners, the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed was the driving force behind the passage of the 2016 Delaware River Basin Conservation Act, established to implement strategic conservation and restoration action across the watershed.
In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation launched the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund as an important step toward achieving the goals of the Act. Including the soon-to-be announced 2020 grantees, the fund has awarded more than $16 million to 90 projects that support recreation, water quality, water management, and habitat in the four-state watershed. The grantees have generated more than $39 million in matching funds for a total conservation investment of $56 million.
Sounds impressive, but what does that look like on the ground? During last year’s Sojourn, mid-Atlantic organizer for Trout Unlimited Rob Shane offered a brook trout’s perspective. “One of the most important things for brook trout is having access to their tributaries, and the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund is supporting our work to restore that access by removing dams, faulty culverts, and road-stream crossings to reconnect streams.”
Access is critical for human communities too. That’s why the fund prioritizes projects that address water quality, water management, and recreational opportunities — projects that break down barriers between people and the river’s resources.
This August, the Service and NFWF will announce the third round of grants for the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund, and throughout the summer, we will share stories highlighting how grantees, like American Rivers, are using this funding to keep momentum toward a shared conservation destination.
That shared goal is key to our collective success. Because all of the projects supported by the fund are conceived within a strategic framework developed by partners, they will add up to long-term conservation outcomes that are significantly greater than the sum of their parts.
Think of the Sojourn: it’s not 100 individuals paddling on the same stretch of river at the same time. It’s a group of people who are paddling together because they know they will go farther by sharing meals, campsites, transportation, and their love of this river.