Officials: $5 million grant will help restore Delaware River watershed

Sen. Chris Coons counted 42 towns that are included in the Delaware River Basin map during a celebration of new funding to improve Delaware’s waterways at Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — An announcement Friday of a $5 million federal grant to support restoration projects in the Delaware River Watershed drew dozens of activists from various environmental organizations to the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge pavilion.

“For the first time in history, the Delaware River has dedicated funding for restoration projects throughout the watershed,” said Sandra Meola, Director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed. “Five million was appropriated for the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program (DRBRP) in fiscal year 2018’s budget. The program was established in 2016 with the passage of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act which has been a priority of the coalition since 2012, so we’re very excited to be here today.”

The grant was a product of the collaborative efforts of U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, Ducks Unlimited, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed is a network of 131 non-governmental organizations dedicated to protecting and restoring the natural resources of the Delaware River Basin.

“Last year we worked with the coalition and other state, federal and local partners to establish a non-regulatory program to coordinate our various conservation strategies in the original vision,” said Dr. Deborah Rocque, Deputy Northeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The program will fund conservation, stewardship and enhancement throughout the water shed. It will conserve and restore fish and wildlife habitat, improve and maintain water quality, sustain and enhance water management, reduce flood damage and improve recreational opportunities and public access in the Delaware River Basin.”

Sandra Meola, director of The Coalition of Delaware River Watershed, speaks during a celebration of new funding to improve Delaware’s waterways at Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The coalition claims that the program will be administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and will leverage private investment, regional partnerships and local knowledge to protect and restore the resources of the basin.

Funding from the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program will allegedly be available to nonprofits; state, Federal, Tribal and local governments; and educational institutions seeking to address pressing environmental issues within the Delaware River Basin.

Areas affected

The Delaware River Basin encompasses portions of Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — supplying over 5 percent of the U.S. population. The Delaware River is the only water source to provide drinking water for two major U.S. cities: Philadelphia and New York – as well as the City of Wilmington.

Organizers claim that many in industries such as fishing, recreation, tourism, water/sewer construction, water utilities and ports are directly connected to the basin. They also claim that 15,737 people, earning $340 million in wages, are employed by these affected sectors. In Delaware, the basin covers about 50 percent (965 square miles) of the land area yet includes 74 percent of the state’s population, according to Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed data.

“This affects a very large community of millions of people across thousands of miles of tributaries,” said Sen. Coons on Friday. “Every program like this has its starting point or its day of origin. There are much larger, well-established programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay’s program that also had a day like this one where they announced their first ever federal funding. If you think about the enormous impact that those programs have had on their regions, it’s a good reminder that we can be inspired and challenged to continue to work together to deliver these kinds of resources for the Delaware River and for all the communities connected to it.”

Project in progress

Restoration of the Delaware River Basin through leveraging federal funds is already taking place in the Delaware River Basin at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, where Ducks Unlimited used $1 million worth of North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve 1,082 acres of emergent and forested wetlands.

“The work that’s been done at Bombay Hook by Ducks Unlimited and its partners is thanks to funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Jake McPherson, Regional Biologist at Ducks Unlimited, said in a statement. “Without federal funds, we would not have been able to create habitat for ducks, geese, and other migrating birds. Bombay Hook is a prime example of federal dollars going directly to improving the Delaware River Basin. We look forward to the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program continuing to play this critical role for the state of Delaware,”

Using NAWCA grant funding, Ducks Unlimited claims to have enhanced 862 acres of emergent wetland pools that provide critical breeding habitat for amphibians and invertebrates, including salamanders and frogs. Ducks Unlimited also assisted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in restoring 220 acres of forested wetlands which buffers erosive actions of waves and storms, improves water quality by retaining and transforming excess nutrients and sediment and provides bird habitat such as breeding grounds and nesting sites. Bombay Hook is known to provide feeding ground for waterfowl and other migratory birds and is recognized as one of America’s 100 Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy.

According to The Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, for fiscal year 2019, the House Appropriations Committee approved $5 million in May 2018 for the DRBRP and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $4 million for the DRBRP in mid-June. The coalition expects that next week a spending bill that includes $5 million for the DRBRP in fiscal year 2019 will pass. They say those approvals would mark the first major hurdle in the federal budgeting process to secure DRBRP funding for next year.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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