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Delaware River Basin revitilization efforts hit Congress

After five years of slowly gaining traction, a bill creating a federal oversight and grant program for the Delaware River Basin got its first hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday.

Backed by Congressman John Carney (D) and first introduced by then U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R) in 2010, state and local governments, nonprofits and universities could apply for grants to help improve the 12,500 square mile region.

“For years, other watersheds across the country have benefited from dedicated funding sources that have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to protection and restoration effort,” Carney said.

He says work done with the help of that grant money would have multiple benefits for the states of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

“This strategic, multi-stakeholder approach will improve fish and wildlife habitats, bolster recreational opportunities, which are so important to all the residents, improve water quality, revitalize waterfronts and reduce flood damage.”

The river basin supplies about half of New York City’s drinking water, as well as part of Philadelphia’s, with about 16 million people directly relying on it.

Former DNREC Secretary and head of the National Wildlife Federation Collin O’Mara also testified in favor of the proposal before the House Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee.

He notes the $5 million the bill sets aside could tackle water quality and resiliency issues he says should be the top priority in the basin.

“Whether that’s strengthening wetlands in Wilmington or living shorelines along the bay shore or going up into Pennsylvania and making sure their wastewater treatment systems are more resilient. There’s a lot of opportunities up and down,” O’Mara said.

As of March 2014, all of Delaware’s waterways are at least 50 percent polluted, whether by agricultural runoff that can leach oxygen out of the ecosystem or toxic deposits from industrial polluters.

94 percent of rivers don’t support healthy wildlife and 86 percent aren’t safe to swim in according to the Delaware Public Media archives.

Nine Republicans and eight Democrats co-sponsor the legislation, all of who reside within the basin.

The bill has its detractors and skeptics.

“While well-intended, there are questions over [whether] these new restoration and grant programs are duplicative of ongoing federal efforts in the Delaware River Basin,” said chair Rep. John Flemming (R-LA).

Others on the committee remarked that they shouldn’t be adding on to an already bloated federal budget.

But O’Mara says that money could help avoid costly rehabilitation projects in the future – especially as sea level rise begins to manifest itself more significantly.

“When we’ve made investments in resilience, in water quality, the long term savings and long term economic benefits vastly outweigh the fairly miniscule investments.”