A Philadelphia foundation is providing $35 million to launch a host of programs aimed at better protecting the Delaware River, which flows through the heart of the populous U.S. eastern seaboard and provides drinking water for 15 million people. The William Penn Foundation, working with nonprofit groups such as The Open Space Institute, says its Delaware River Initiative will protect more than 30,000 acres of land, launch 40 restoration projects, create incentives for businesses and landowners to protect the watershed, and set up a comprehensive program of water quality monitoring that will enable the foundation and its partners to measure the success of their programs and the overall health of the river. A cornerstone of the foundation’s initiative will be its restoration and protection work in eight so-called “sub-watersheds” that feed into the Delaware River.

“We wanted to go to places where the water quality was best but threatened, or the worst but had potential for a turnaround,” said Andrew Johnson, senior officer in the foundation’s watershed protection program.

The William Penn Foundation is a family-held philanthropy with roughly $2 billion in assets. The 388-mile Delaware River rises out of New York’s Catskill mountains and then flows through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Foundation officials said that while the federal Clean Water Act has significantly improved the river’s water quality since the 1970s, the Delaware now faces intensifying threats, many from so-called “non-point sources.” Johnson said these include logging and development in the river’s headwaters, polluted runoff from farms and urban and suburban areas, aquifer depletion, and the looming prospect of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas.

The Delaware River Basin Commission, a regional body that manages the river, has issued a temporary ban on fracking. But oil and gas development could move ahead at some point in portions of the basin, and Johnson noted that pipelines and other energy infrastructure is already being built in the watershed. “Energy development in upstream headwaters is obviously going to be accelerating,” said Johnson. “That is a threat that we’re very interested in.”

Working with 40 national and regional partners, the William Penn Foundation has designed pilot projects to protect the watershed from the banks of numerous creeks and tributaries to lands miles away from the river itself. “We are consciously making the connection between land protection and water quality,” said Johnson.

He said the initiative’s goal is to work with universities, conservation groups, local land trusts, citizens’ groups, and government agencies to establish successful pilot projects that could then be replicated across the region. Claire Billett, an officer in the foundation’s watershed program, said the initiative was seeking to encourage “cumulative impacts that wouldn’t be achieved if people were acting on their own in a more spread-out, disparate manner across the watershed.”

The “sub-watershed” program, which will involve projects in roughly 25 percent of the 13,500 square miles that make up the Delaware River watershed, will focus on areas where restoration and protection projects will have a high impact on water quality, the foundation said. The work in the eight sub-watersheds will be closely coordinated and the results will be monitored by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

In the Brandywine/Christina sub-watershed, scientists and conservationists from the University of Delaware and The Nature Conservancy will investigate the creation of a water fund in which key parties — such as the water utility for Wilmington, Delaware — would help purchase or restore valuable forested headwaters. Such water funds are being created worldwide, in places such as Quito, Ecuador.

In the New Jersey Highlands sub-watershed, scientists will be using advanced methods, such as identification of pathogens through their DNA signature, to track sources of pollution. In the upstream suburban Philadelphia sub-watershed, streams that have been buried or covered by roads or other development will be opened up, restoring habitat and connections to wetlands. In addition, scientists from Villanova University will launch projects to control storm water runoff, including the construction of rainwater gardens and rainwater trenches to keep polluted storm water from rushing into the Delaware River and its tributaries.

Foundation officials said the program will also work closely with the region’s many land trusts to ensure that farmland and other land conservation programs incorporate measures to reduce runoff of farm animal waste and other pollutants into waterways. One group, the Stroud Water Research Center, will create 100-foot buffers along long stretches of a stream. Other projects will work with farmers farther from waterways but whose practices can nevertheless pollute the watershed.

“We’ve been very concentrated along the stream corridor, but we think there are a lot of innovative things we can do uphill,” said Nathan Boon, an associate in the foundation’s watershed program.

As for one of the biggest potential threats facing the river — fracking for natural gas and associated pipelines and other infrastructure — Johnson said the $35 million program will include funds to monitor the expansion of pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure. The initiative will also study the potential impact of proposed fracking projects on the forested headlands of the Delaware, which he said are essential to the health of river.


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