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Watershed, estuary reports see some gains but say there’s more work to be done

Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Two new reports on water and environmental quality in Delaware say there has been some recent improvement in key indicators but that more needs to be done to slow development, curb the release of pollutants, and halt the rapid loss of tidal wetlands.

The flow of some agricultural pollutants into rivers and creeks is declining in the Brandywine-Christina watershed – covering northern Delaware and parts of southeastern Pennsylvania -- thanks to improving farm management, while more stream banks are being protected by local ordinances and action by conservation nonprofits, according to one of the reports, headed by the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center.

The other report, from the nonprofit Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE), rates the health of the Delaware River and Bay as “fair.” It says declining pollution and increased oxygen levels are boosting fish populations and the species such as osprey that feed on them. But it warns that the area’s tidal wetlands are shrinking by an acre a day because of sea-level rise, reducing the coastline’s resilience to storms and rising seas, and eroding water quality.

PDE’s overall assessment of the estuary’s health is unchanged from its previous report in 2012 and the one before that in 2008 but its latest rating still represents an improvement from earlier decades because of improvements like better waste water treatment and the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act, the group said, in its Technical Report for the Delaware Estuary and Basin.

Still, recent gains have been undermined by the loss of natural habitat to development, and by climate change, which is stressing natural systems with increased temperature, precipitation, sea-level rise and salinity, the report said.

The UD report, released on May 3, also identifies increased salinity in the tidal area of the watershed as a challenge to water quality, and said that area is increasingly threatened by sea-level rise.

But some other measures of water quality in the watershed that serves a big chunk of Delaware’s population are showing signs of improvement, according to the UD report.

The Brandywine-Christina State of the Watershed Report for 2018 shows that there is more oxygen, fewer agricultural pollutants and an increased area of restored stream bank on some of the waterways in the watershed that covers much of New Castle County and Pennsylvania’s Chester County, as well as small parts of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and Delaware Counties, and Maryland’s Cecil County.

Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of UD’s Water Resources Center, acknowledged the report paints a mixed picture but argued that some indicators are showing improvement and that nearly four centuries of pollution won’t be cleaned up overnight. He said that legacy is seen in continuing problems like fish consumption advisories and some streams remaining impaired.

“It’s going to take time to reverse those, to get back to fishable, swimmable and potable water standards,” he said.

Speaking Thursday at a conference on cooperation between Delaware and Pennsylvania on ways of improving water quality, Kauffman said the improving signals by some metrics show an overall improvement that can be built on by the continued collaboration between academia, government and many conservation nonprofits.

“The trends have been reversed and are going in the right direction,” he said.

The report, co-authored by five conservation nonprofits and a water utility, says there’s less phosphorus from fertilizers getting into rivers and creeks; that nitrogen levels have dropped since 2000 at four Delaware monitoring stations, and that there have been slight declines in bacteria levels in Brandywine and Red Clay Creeks in recent years.

Development, however, has been surging since the mid-1990s, reducing the area of farmed and natural lands; chloride levels in waterways have been rising because of road salting, and the temperature of rivers and creeks has risen significantly because of climate change or local factors like increased urbanization and reduced tree cover, the report says.

“The struggle for clean water and healthy watersheds for today and future generations must continue, for the challenges remain,” the UD report says. “Meeting the needs of an ever-growing population will increasingly strain the resources of the watershed and its capacity to sustain the environment, society and the economy on which the well-being of the region is based.”

The report was funded by the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, a program launched by the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation, which coordinates the efforts of local nonprofits, public entities, and academics across the four-state region of the Delaware River Basin, and includes the Brandywine-Christina watershed as one of its eight “clusters”.

In April, the foundation announced it will invest another $42 million for the second phase of the program which aims to improve water quality in an area that provides drinking water for some 15 million people. The Brandywine-Christina cluster is getting $1.5 million from William Penn for the new phase of the initiative, which runs through 2020, Kauffman said.

Andrew Johnson, program director for the DRWI, said its greatest achievement in the watershed so far has been the collaboration forged between the diverse interest groups.

“The heightened collaboration among the nonprofit organizations and their heightened collaboration with public agencies, that was there before, but the Delaware River Watershed Initiative has given those organizations an opportunity to spend more time together to do strategic thinking and implementation,” he said at the watershed conference in Mendenhall, PA.

Keynote speaker Collin O’Mara, Delaware’s former environment secretary, said the collaboration between the watershed groups could become a national model for other regional efforts to improve water quality.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “There’s going to be hundreds of millions of people across the country who will benefit. “

O’Mara, now chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said the Delaware Basin overall is poised for further environmental improvements thanks to the work of the watershed groups combined with interest in water issues from the governors of all four basin states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

He said the efforts will also be aided by recent passage of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act, a federal law that will coordinate the efforts of many conservation nonprofits under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some 600,000 of the Basin’s residents live in the Brandywine-Christina watershed, two-thirds of which lies in Pennsylvania where farming practices and conservation measures play an important role in determining water quality for Delaware residents downstream, the UD report said.

In an effort to shield waterways from farm impacts such as cattle waste, Pennsylvania recently protected 26 miles of stream banks or “riparian buffers” and about 10 miles of stream fencing, while Delaware has put some 4,300 acres of land under nutrient management plans.

The Brandywine Red Clay Alliance, a nonprofit that contributed to the report, has restored five miles of streams in 17 projects in the Brandywine and Red Clay Creek sub-watersheds, the report said.

It also highlighted the increased passage of fish along rivers and creeks as an indicator of improving waterway health, noting the removal of a dam at White Clay Creek to enable shad to swim upstream for the first time since the dam was built in the late 18th century, and anticipating the removal of another dam in Wilmington this fall.

One indicator species, freshwater mussels, are fairly abundant in Brandywine Creek, the report said, citing research from the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, while conditions appear suitable for the mussels in Red Clay and White Clay Creeks.

While many Delaware waters have official advisories on eating fish that may be contaminated with legacy toxins like PCBs and dioxins, state environmental officials reinstated Red Clay Creek as suitable for trout, the report said.

Local government in both Delaware and Pennsylvania has been doing its bit to improve water quality, the UD report said. More than half the municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Chester County have passed ordinances designed to protect riparian buffers, and there is a similar level of protection in Delaware’s New Castle County.

But increasing development is leading to more land becoming “impervious”, creating more problems with pollutant-laden runoff emptying into aquifers. The report said that during the 2001-2011 period, many local watersheds neared having 10 percent of their land considered impervious, and seen to be negatively impacted.

Despite the increased oxygen levels in water identified in both reports, PDE warned that those gains could be reversed in coming decades by increasing water temperatures and higher nutrient runoff as a result of growing human population.

And it said the tidal wetlands that contribute to water quality could be degraded at a faster rate by rising seas and the wake from bigger ships sailing the Delaware Estuary and Bay.

The uncertainties surrounding climate change require careful monitoring of natural features like tidal wetlands so that environmental managers will be able to make decisions about how to preserve ecosystem services like drainage and filtration that are worth an estimated $12 billion a year in the estuary, PDE said.

Overall, the report is a mix of positive and negative trends, PDE said. “The status of many indicators is good, and others not so good,” it 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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