William Penn Foundation awards $17 million for restoration of Delaware River watershed

The Delaware River drains an area of 14,119 square miles (36,570 km2) in five U.S. states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

Rising in two branches in New York state’s Catskill Mountains, the river flows 419 miles (674 km) into Delaware Bay, where its waters enter the Atlantic Ocean near Cape May, New Jersey, and Cape Henlopen in Delaware. Not including Delaware Bay, the river’s length including its two branches is 388 miles (624 km). The Delaware River is one of nineteen “Great Waters” recognized by the America’s Great Waters Coalition.

Through its course, the Delaware River forms the boundaries between Pennsylvania and New York, the entire boundary between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and most of the boundary between Delaware and New Jersey. The river’s navigable, tidal section served as a conduit for shipping and transportation that aided the development of the industrial cities of Trenton, Camden, and Philadelphia. And therein lies the source of today’s problem: massive contamination.

Now, the William Penn Foundation has awarded $17 million in grants to accelerate the protection and restoration of the Delaware River watershed, the primary source of drinking water for more than 15 million people. Thirty five grants to local and regional non-profit organizations will carry forward this critical work as support in Washington for laws protecting clean water appears at risk.

As a consequence of reduced federal involvement in environmental protection, it is likely that state and local governments will need to accept increased responsibility to maintain momentum around existing clean water regulations to ensure laws that have been protecting clean water for more than 40 years – and the progress made over that time – are not compromised.

The Delaware River and its tributaries lie within four states: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, each of which has partnered with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to implement the Clean Water Act (CWA) and other laws designed to eliminate pollution and protect sources of drinking water.

These waterways are cleaner now than they have been in decades, largely a result of the CWA; locally, the Act played a major role in restoring clean water in the Delaware River after decades of industrial pollution had rendered stretches of it in the Philadelphia area a “dead zone.” In light of proposed rollbacks of critical elements of clean water regulation at the federal level, state and local governments must now play a more prominent role in protecting their water sources, working alongside non-governmental organizations and the private sector, both of which are in a position to advance effective policy and practice on this front.

The Foundation’s Watershed Protection Program is a strategic, science-informed approach to conservation, based on the power of the collective impact of organizations working locally to protect or restore priority waterways, from the Catskills and the Poconos to the Delaware Bayshore,” said Andrew Johnson, Program Director for Watershed Protection at the William Penn Foundation. “We deliberately focus our grantmaking on specific threats to clean water in specific places within the larger system to achieve a critical mass of effort on research, advocacy, on-the-ground conservation, and building a constituency for clean water. We award more than $30 million each year toward watershed protection to continue the forward momentum on addressing environmental issues, even as federal support hangs in the balance.

The recently approved grants support conservation and constituency building at the state and local levels, as well as efforts to promote enforcement of existing environmental regulations. The grants include:

Encouraging Local Engagement and River Access:

  • Grants to Berks Nature, Schuylkill River Greenway Association, and the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education will enable each to implement outdoor recreational and educational activities on rivers and trails, and advance development of key segments of Circuit Trails that parallel rivers, streams, and canals, engaging thousands of people who value clean water.
  • Funding for East Falls Development Corporation will support construction of a river landing on the Schuylkill River, immediately upstream of the Falls Bridge, providing new public access to the river for kayaking and canoeing easily reached via the Schuylkill River Trail.
  • Grants to Philadelphia City Rowing and On the Water Consortium of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia will increase public access to water and youth-focused environmental education programming on rivers in Philadelphia and Camden.
  • Grants to Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, New Jersey Tree Foundation, and Camden City Garden Club will increase constituency support for clean water in Camden, NJ, through the development of new Circuit Trails and public parks near the Delaware and Cooper Rivers, outreach and education about clean water, and water quality-focused programs for youth and families.
  • Grants to Delaware Greenways and Delaware Nature Society will substantively increase the recreational use of riverside trails and expand The Circuit in Delaware; support outreach to engage trail users in watershed education programs; and build broad public support for improved clean water policies in Delaware.

Informing Policy:

  • Two grants to National Wildlife Federation:
    • One will provide continued support for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, which is a leader for collaboration, advocacy, and shared learning among its 100 member organizations.
    • The second underscores the importance of cooperative efforts by the four watershed states—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York—and will enable NWF to mobilize people across the watershed who engage in water- and trail-related outdoor recreational and educational activities in an effort to encourage the governors of the four states to develop a shared vision for protection of the watershed.
  • A grant to the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices will establish a water policy institute that will provide research and analysis to governors and their staffs, and a grant to River Network will continue to promote coordination, alignment, and collaboration among state agencies, research institutions, and NGOs across the four watershed states. A grant to Partnership Project, Inc. will allow for rapid analysis and public education for emerging federal policy changes threatening water quality in the Delaware River watershed.
  • Three grants will support efforts to engage in permitting processes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey portions of the watershed, including grants to Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future and Clean Air Council for advocacy, permit analysis, and legal strategies to advance implementation of key provisions of the Clean Water Act; and New Jersey Future for technical assistance to municipalities and developers to encourage adoption and implementation of local policies and practices that will increase the use of green stormwater infrastructure to reduce pollution.
  • A grant to the American Sustainable Business Institute will educate business leaders in the watershed about the importance of clean water and help bring their perspectives to policy debates in the region.

Photo of Delaware River, looking from Philadelphia to Camden, by Storm Cunningham.

See William Penn Foundation website.

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