Coalition to study economic, ecologic value of Milford-area waterways

MILFORD — A coalition of stakeholders have been granted more than $200,000 to study two watersheds in the Milford area.

The study, which is expected to take two years and formally begin in early 2021, will assess the economic value of natural resources in these watersheds and the degree to which they are susceptible to climate-driven hazards like sea-level rise.

The study will be managed by Delaware Sea Grant, a nonprofit group which aims to help coastal communities maintain their natural ecosystems.

Milford City Manager Mark Whitfield broke the upcoming study into three main parts: an economic study, a comprehensive vulnerability assessment and a management plan.

“This study will help Milford and Slaughter Beach understand the value of their natural resources and leverage that knowledge to generate sustainable revenue and support for projects such as ecotours and wetland restoration,” he said.

He said the comprehensive vulnerability assessment will “identify community assets and natural resources at risk of flooding, sea-level rise and land-use changes,” while the management plan will create a “stakeholder-led vision that identifies ecotourism and nature-based investments that will promote the economic and coastal resilience of the area.”

Mr. Whitfield expected the study to bring more ecotourism opportunities to Milford and the surrounding area. He believes it will also allow the city to better identify grant funding opportunities in the future and create a comprehensive strategy for preserving its wetlands.

“Preserving natural habitat along the river, including the flood plain, reduces the flooding vulnerability of Milford,” he said. “If that land along the river is developed, it could reduce the flood plain and increase future flooding in Milford.”

A press release from DSG said the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded partners in Delaware a grant worth $110,042 for the study. The project has also received matching or in-kind funding from other organizations, which brings the total to $220,090.

“Ultimately, the findings will inform a nature-based investment strategy that will promote economic opportunity and community resilience in the town of Slaughter Beach and the city of Milford,” the release states.

Slaughter Beach Mayor Kathy Lock is happy to see the study getting underway.

“We saw a clear need for action and also an opportunity to explore the economic benefits that these wetlands, waterways and habitats bring to Milford and Slaughter Beach,” she said.

Milford Mayor Archie Campbell agrees.

“This is a win-win approach that will greatly benefit our communities,” he said. “I look forward to working with our partners to develop a vision for the future.”

According to Delaware Sea Grant, two waterways in question are both integral parts of Delaware’s ecological landscape.

“The Mispillion River and Cedar Creek watersheds have some of the region’s most vital natural resources and some of the last remaining large tracts of undisturbed land in Delaware,” the press release went on to say.

“They are located within an internationally recognized flyway for migrating birds and one of the most productive horseshoe crab spawning areas in the world.

“The area is under pressure from development and climate change, which has increased the risk of flooding in Slaughter Beach and Milford,”

I.G. Burton, councilman for Sussex County Council District 3, which covers the area, said the study is vitally important.

“If we do not act soon and take a holistic approach to managing these resources, their true value to Delaware will be lost,” he said. “But first, we need to understand what that value is.”

Mr. Whitfield said the project was initially conceptualized by the Resilient and Sustainable Communities League, a group of 14 organizations, which helps Delaware municipalities prepare for climate change.

“The city was approached by the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and the Delaware Sea Grant, as well as Sussex County and Slaughter Beach, to be a partner,” he said.

For this study, RASCL formed the Waterways Infrastructure and Investment Network, which includes RASCL members as well as Milford, Slaughter Beach, Kent and Sussex counties and Pew Charitable Trusts.

Danielle Swallow, a coastal hazards specialist with DSG, said she is excited about the new coalition.

“This is the first time RASCL has applied for a federal grant on behalf of Delaware communities, and our success in this competitive nationwide grant program shows the benefit of our network,” she said.

Staff writer Noah Zucker can be reached at nzucker@newszap.com.