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Backers of Delaware Basin bill see more support this time

Delaware Public Media

Environmentalists are seeking political support for a fresh attempt to give federal protection to water quality, fish stocks and recreational opportunities in the Delaware River Basin.

The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act, expected to be reintroduced to Congress in early March, would elevate safeguards on environmental quality in the region that stretches from upstate New York to the mouth of the Delaware Bay by requiring that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service coordinates the work of an array of state and local environmental groups.

The Act, which was first introduced in 2010, would also allow the FWS to provide technical assistance to groups already working on issues like water supply or wildlife protection, and would set up a competitive grant program to fund environmental work by state agencies such as Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, or by local governments, nonprofit groups, and universities.

Projects that could benefit from the new funding would include restoration of wetlands; renewal of town waterfronts, the management of storm water, or the disposal of toxics. The federal government would pay up to 50 percent of each qualifying project.

The coordination of conservation would improve flood control, and strengthen protection for the forests that make up about half of the watershed area, supporters say.

In Delaware, the Act could mean conservation groups would have a better shot at getting funding for projects like wetlands restoration, flood control and wildlife habitat improvements, said Richie Jones, director of the Delaware Nature Conservancy.

For example, the Conservancy might get more funding for its restoration of Milford Neck, a 400-acre wetland near Mispillion Harbor where the group is working on a hydrology study using $250,000 in federal Sandy-relief funds.

Jones said it’s unclear whether such projects would actually attract federal money if the DRBCA becomes law, but he argued that even without funding attached, its passage would represent a major step forward for conservation.

“The DRBCA has been a legislative priority for the Nature Conservancy chapters that border the Delaware Bay for a very long time, and we would be very excited to see it pass,” he said.

Previous attempts to pass the bill have been foiled by a lack of bipartisan support, especially among basin constituencies, but it looks like there are more votes in favor from both parties this time around, Jones said.

“Getting the whole Delaware River and Bay delegation on board has been our biggest challenge,” he said. “My understanding is that we are closer than we ever have been on that.”

Jones argued that the apparently stronger support is likely because of an increasing awareness of the economic value of defending natural resources. More resilient wetlands, for example, will attract more birds which in turn will attract more birdwatchers, a generally affluent community, who will eat in local restaurants and stay in local hotels.

“There are all kinds of pursuits that ultimately will result in an economic tail-wind for the state,” he said.

It may also be that lawmakers are increasingly recognizing the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise, and accepting that a defense of natural assets like wetlands is both economically advantageous, and an important part of adaptation to the new conditions, Jones said.

Other environmental organizations such as the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE) and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) work well in specific areas, they don’t have the funding to take a coordinated approach to conservation in the basin, the bill’s authors argue.

The backers, led by Delaware Congressman John Carney and Senator Tom Carper, want the watershed to enjoy federal protection similar to that of the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. Neither of the Delaware lawmakers was available to comment for this story.

Supporters note the region is home to more than 200 species of fish that support some $200 million annually in tourism and recreational activities. At the watershed’s southern end, the bay supports the world’s largest population of horseshoe crabs, and is a globally important site for migrating shorebirds.

The basin is under-funded compared with other major watersheds, and deserves more federal support in light of its ecological and economic value, and its status as a major source of drinking water for the two largest cities on the East Coast – New York and Philadelphia, they say.

“The DRBCA would clearly affirm the Delaware River watershed is a national priority, worthy of the attention and resources currently afforded to other major watersheds across the country,” supporters said in a statement.

Complaints about a shortage of funding for the region have been amplified by the federal government’s failure to pay its share of the DRBC’s budget for every year but one since 1997, putting increased financial pressure on the four states – Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, that are also represented by the interstate agency.

The bill was first introduced by former Delaware Congressman Mike Castle, and has been reintroduced three times since 2010 but hasn’t gained sufficient traction to become law. Its last version was introduced in 2013.

Now, sources say there are at least 21 cosponsors on both sides of the aisle, including four from New Jersey and another seven from New York and Pennsylvania.

While the Fish & Wildlife Service would coordinate conservation in the Basin, it would not duplicate the efforts of organizations such as the DRBC, supporters say.

DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert said the agency has backed previous versions, and will do so again this time.

“The legislation as introduced since 2010 would not duplicate or conflict with the DRBC’s responsibilities,” Rupert wrote in an email. “Instead, it would enhance collaboration of conservation efforts underway in the basin, and build on those efforts.”

He noted that the bill would establish a competitive matching-grant program for conservation initiatives that would leverage federal funds.

Kim Beidler, project coordinator for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, an advocacy group, said the bill represents a major opportunity to give federal protection to the watershed.

In the case of the DRBC, Beidler said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would complement that agency’s activities rather than replacing them.

For example, while the DRBC might mitigate flood risk by managing reservoir releases, an organization receiving a grant under the proposed law could work to restore a flood plan or develop green infrastructure to lessen the impact of floods, Beidler said.

“The intent of the DRBCA isn’t to duplicate authorities that are already carried out by others, but rather to support coordinated and complementary restoration and protection work,” she said.

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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