Delaware Public Media

New federal water law to help clean up local supplies, defend beaches, expand port

Nov 1, 2018

Elisia Downing has been a resident of Ellendale for only a few months but she’s already familiar with the challenges of living without clean water from the taps in the home she shares with her daughter.

Downing is one of around 200 private well owners in the rural southern Delaware community who get their water for drinking, cooking and bathing, not from the wells, but from plastic jugs that are regularly delivered to a local church, and have to be picked up and driven to their homes.

“The water is terrible, it’s dirty, you can’t drink it,” said Downing, 60. “You can’t bathe with it, you can’t cook with it. So we come up here to the church to get clean water and fill our jugs up. “

After decades of dealing with well water that’s contaminated with iron from the soil, nitrates from nearby farms, and even sewage from septic tanks, Downing and her neighbors finally have the prospect of getting clean water from a new public system that’s due to be constructed over the next two years.

She was among about 50 people who came to Ellendale’s Philadelphia Pentecostal Holiness Church on Oct. 26 for an official announcement that a federal bill to provide funding for the new system, and other local water projects around the country, has become law.

America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, signed into law by President Trump in late October, will help communities like Ellendale find a solution to longstanding water contamination, while making wide-ranging improvements to ports, beaches and waterways across the country.

In Delaware, the Act will also boost the expansion of the Port of Wilmington by allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deposit more spoils from its dredging operation to open the port to bigger ships. For beach towns, it will provide more federal funding for rebuilding beaches and dunes that will defend them from the higher seas and bigger storms that are expected to come with climate change.

“This major water infrastructure bill delivers for Delaware and families across our country,” said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who co-sponsored the bipartisan bill with Sen. John Barasso, a Wyoming Republican. “It makes smart investments in critical water infrastructure we don’t see every day, but that Delaware and families in every state rely on, such as drinking water systems, dams, reservoirs, levees, and ports.” 

The bill is expected to help other Delaware communities that are dealing with contamination to private wells or public water systems. They include Millsboro where some wells have been tainted by chicken manure from the nearby Mountaire processing plant, and Blades, where the toxic chemical PFOS has been found in water supplies.

Communities will now be able to access the state’s revolving loan fund and get low- or no-interest loans to make improvements, Carper said at the Ellendale event, noting that one out of six people in Delaware get their water from private wells.

Bishop Major Foster, pastor of the Ellendale church, said parts of the predominantly African American community of about 400 people have been without clean tap water since he moved to the town in 1967. “They go to the laundromat; they get bottled water, they can’t drink the water, they can’t wash their clothes,” he said.

He said a new public water system will mean there’s a better chance of attracting new stores and homes to an impoverished community that currently has only a dollar store and a small restaurant, he said.

He described the provision of clean water as a building block for community improvement, and a way of helping people feel better about themselves and where they live. “If they don’t feel good about themselves, they’re not going to do nothing,” he said.

Ellendale’s former mayor, Delores Price, said her own water supply is contaminated with nitrates from local farms. She has installed filters to make the water drinkable, but she is still concerned about its safety because nitrate levels keep rising every time she has her water tested.

Price, 84, who has lived in Ellendale since 1953, criticized the town management which previously voted not to build a public water system. “If you are a town, you should be supplying water to your people, not sitting around and saying, ‘some of them had their water tested and those chemicals weren’t found,’” she said.

Near-unanimous passage of the bill – with only one ‘nay’ vote across both houses of Congress – shows that it is possible to get both parties to agree at a time when partisan divisions have blocked progress on many bills, said Maria Payan, a consultant for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, a national nonprofit that advocates for communities like Millsboro near large-scale agricultural operations.

“Today is a testament that clean water is not a bipartisan issue and we can still pass legislation in these divided times,” Payan told the Ellendale event.

In Delaware’s economically important beach towns, the new law is expected to speed up reinforcement of dunes and beaches to help defend against the effects of climate change, and to cut the costs of doing so.

Bethany Beach, for example, expects to get more regular beach maintenance from the Army Corps as a result of a provision that allows the coordination of local projects.

Lew Killmer, the town’s mayor, said beach sand gets washed out to sea, and has to be replaced, while the dunes that protect the town sometimes get badly damaged by storms, and have to be rebuilt.

Without the dunes, communities like Bethany Beach would be exposed to the Atlantic Ocean or the Delaware Bay, and face a bleak future, Killmer said, before a ceremony at the town’s band shell to announce the new law.

“It’s not just for tourism but it also protects the infrastructure of the town,” he said. “If the dunes weren’t here this wouldn’t just be flooded, it would be gone.”

While Bethany, South Bethany and Fenwick Island all benefited from a beach-nourishment program by the Army Corps this year, nearby Lewes did not, said Ted Becker, mayor of Lewes. In future, the new law allows the Corps to consider the whole Delaware coast, allowing for bigger contracts and lower costs, he said.

It also encourages the “creative” use of dredge materials which might be used to rebuild islands that have been lost, or for replenishing beaches, depending on the nature of the materials, Becker said.

Recognizing other forms of coastal defense, the bill also requires the Army Corps to consider natural alternatives such as living shorelines or marsh restoration.

That could help the inland bays resist rising seas and bigger storms, said Chris Bason, executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays.

“It’s huge for the inland bays because it has the potential to bring massive amounts of federal resources to these back-bay areas that in the past have gotten a lot less attention,” he said.

While the newly authorized federal funding is now subject to annual appropriation, Bason said he’s optimistic that the money will be made available, considering the bill’s strong bipartisan approval, and the fact that Delaware’s junior Senator, Chris Coons, is a member of the Senate appropriations committee.

At the Port of Wilmington, the new law will allow the Army Corps to more than triple the height of dumped dredged material from the deepening of the port – to 35 feet from the current limit of 10 feet. That will facilitate the port’s expansion to attract the bigger ships that will be sailing up the East Coast as a result of the widening of the Panama Canal.

The port’s expansion to the Edgemoor location is designed to double its output, with the addition of some 5,000 jobs when the project is completed, Carper said.

For the beach towns, the law’s provisions recognize the long-term threat of sea-level rise that is forecast to persist over many generations, Carper said at the Bethany event.

“It’s not just for people who are my age, it’s not just for our children, it’s for our grandchildren and for people who follow,” he said.