Delaware basin 'showing improvement, but still needs work'
Gerald Kauffman, director of the Water Resources Agency at the University of Delaware, by the University Rain Garden, which is part of a complex watershed system, ranging in increasing scale from the small Cool Run tributary, to the White Clay Creek Watershed, to the Christina River Basin, and finally to the Delaware River Basin. The Rain Garden was a master's research project by Elaine Grehl, a 2005 graduate of the Longwood Graduate Program.
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11:45 a.m., Dec. 5, 2008----Although the health of the Delaware River and Bay is improving on some fronts, a number of troubling trends remain in this historic waterway that provides drinking water to millions in the Mid-Atlantic region, among other services, and harbors a diversity of wildlife.

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That's the conclusion of a major “state of the basin” report developed over the past three years by a multi-state research consortium led by the University of Delaware.

The effort, a collaboration of the University of Delaware, Cornell, Penn State, and Rutgers, was coordinated by Gerald Kauffman, professor of watershed policy and director of the UD Institute of Public Administration's Water Resources Agency.

Kauffman co-presented a “report card” of the Delaware River Basin's health at a press conference on Friday, Dec. 5, at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, near the Philadelphia Airport.

The event was hosted by the Delaware River Basin Commission and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, the two agencies that funded the study.

“We have a tremendous resource that we need to keep healthy,” Kauffman said prior to the event, noting that the Delaware River Basin supplies drinking water to 15 million people, including Philadelphia and New York, and is home to the largest freshwater port in the world.

“We are seeing a revival of the shad and striped bass fisheries,” Kauffman noted, “and bald eagles are making a comeback.”

Bald eagles nested in South Philadelphia last year, the first in more than 200 years.

While it was deemed one of the most polluted rivers in the world in the 1950s, with no oxygen in the water in the summer at Philadelphia, the Delaware River has now exceeded the “fishable standard” of 5 milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter in the region that flows by the city.

Kauffman attributes the improvement in water quality to environmental policies such as the federal Clean Water Act, signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, and President John F. Kennedy's signing of the compact that created the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and its holistic approach to watershed management in 1961.

However, fish consumption advisories remain on 4,000 miles of streams, Kauffman noted, and the pesticides atrazine and metolachlor have been detected in eight of ten of the basin's streams.

The Atlantic sturgeon, a fish that was prolific in the estuary in the 1800s, and the red knot, a migratory shorebird, are approaching extinction, according to the report, with no sturgeon caught in 2005.

Moreover, between 1996 and 2001, the Delaware River Basin saw a loss of habitat of 70 square miles--25 acres per day--as former farmland, wetland, or forest became developed.

What is needed to stem these troublesome tides and steer ahead on the course to improvement?

“JFK had the right idea when he signed the DRBC compact in 1961 as the best way to manage the interstate Delaware River watershed,” Kauffman said. “One of his wisest public policy moves was appointing the governors of each state as DRBC commissioners, thus ensuring that water resources are being addressed at the highest levels in state government.”

According to Kauffman, watershed-based governance structures such as the DRBC and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary offer “our best hope” to continue improving the health of the Delaware and its tributaries in four states.

“Significant challenges lie ahead in restoring the river and estuary that will require market-based investments in watershed projects such as planting new forests, reducing farm manure, and cleaning up hazardous waste and mine drainage sites,” Kauffman said.

“The current economic drought provides unprecedented incentives to develop creative financing mechanisms to restore the river to fishable and swimmable status as required by Nixon's Clean Water Act,” Kauffman said. “The Delaware River is the economic engine of the Delaware Valley. It will be worth continued investment in infrastructure from the public and private sectors to continue this remarkable Delaware River revival.”

Download the full report from the UD Institute of Public Administration Web site.

Article by Tracey Bryant