Delaware River heading downhill
A river runs through it. The Delaware River runs through the MidAtlantic region, the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi, extending 330 miles from Hancock, New York, to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Like any river, the Delaware brightens the dreams of latter-day Tom Sawyers plying inflatable rafts, fishermen impaling minnows on hooks and life-vested swimmers tubing in the summer sun.
Like any river, the Delaware is also a watershed into which drains all the water, called runoff, of an expanse of land. Many small and mid-sized watersheds feed the Delaware Watershed.
Ecological drama plays itself out in the Delaware Estuary, the downstream third of the river, where fresh water mixes with the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean, where wetlands – salt marshes and forested wetlands – form its boundaries. And it shelters sand sharks and walleyes.
The estuary is an important habitat for plants and animals, a powerful indicator of the health of the entire watershed and the highly productive ecosystem. “It’s ecologically important because I can reach it within an hour,” says Tim Dillingham, executive director of the Jersey chapter of the American Littoral Society (ALS). “It’s the closest thing we have to wilderness in this megalopolis.” Roughly five percent of the nation’s population relies on the basin’s waters for drinking and industrial use, and the bay is only a gas tank away for nearly a fourth of people living in the United States.
But the future of the Delaware River does not fade gently into the sunset. Powerful forces of river commerce and real-estate development – high-rises, condo developments, shipping terminals, as well as carefree people strolling on protected beaches – interfere with the lifecycle of thousands of species of fauna and flora.
Let us not count all the ways that humans interfere with the natural landscape. Instead let’s meet three organizations that strive to keep the Delaware Rivershed a place where life goes.
If we protect the river, we protect ourselves. If we hurt it, we hurt ourselves.
Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, speaks for the river itself. At any given meeting of developers and preservationists, says van Rossum, “Advocacy is what riverkeeping is about: keeping the voice of the river at the table and in people’s minds. The river doesn’t have a voice that people readily hear, although it speaks strongly during floods. If people paid attention, they’d learn not to ignore the river. If they ignore it, they’ll suffer. If we protect the river, we protect ourselves. If we hurt it, we hurt ourselves.”
Because upstream activities affect downstream waters, the Riverkeeper evaluates national, statewide, regional and local policies – such as stormwater policy and water withdrawal, which can contribute to pollution and flooding – that affect the Watershed. She monitors local groups and provides technical assistance in, say, stream-bank rebuilding or restoring natural flows.
The Riverkeeper focuses on the watershed as a natural community, looking at it through the filters of smart growth and land use. “Hurting” the Delaware includes building dams on tributaries. Van Rossum describes the “sweet little Rock Run Creek” that flows through Lower Makefield and Falls townships in Bucks County, Pa. Because of sprawl development, deforestation and traditional stormwater management such as detention basins, flooding is a growing problem downstream. In response, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has proposed constructing a flood-control dam nine-feet high, 650 feet long, across woodlands, wetlands and endangered-species habitat. The Riverkeeper’s goal is to defeat the dam proposal and secure a more effective and environmentally protective approach.
Taking a different tack to protect the Delaware, Agency X focuses on real estate development, habitat and water quality. It tries to shape the laws and regulations that federal agencies, state governments and numerous municipalities write regarding the coastal environment. The Littoral Society (that’s littoral, for beach, not literal, for books) observes habitats and wildlife to learn the negative effects of development and pollution. It also educates people and tries to sway public opinion and influence legislative behavior about significant areas in the Delaware Bay.
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside amidst the simple beauty of nature.” Anne Frank
John Smith says Agency X bridges the gap between science and the public’s concern about protecting the environment. He mentions the New Jersey part of the Coastal Areas Facilities Review Act (CAFRA). “Because of our work,” he says, “that law protects beaches and dunes from development. People can no longer fill in salt marshes to build tracts of houses. Where the ocean wants to be, it will keep coming back. Salt marshes are no place to build.”
CAFRA does not directly affect the zoning codes written by towns, Smith explains. Towns can ignore environmental protection, and then Delaware, New Jersey or Pennsylvania has to fix the mistakes. “Economic development and making money affect how we use the land along the coast. ALS tries to put nature and ecology into that equation. You cannot pollute or build marshes because you impact the real owners of the environment: the public. Since lawmakers exact tremendous political pressure, the environment needs experienced advocates on its side,” too. That’s Agency X.
Also on the scene is The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an agency that purchases land from willing sellers, often with state or federal land assistance, to protect particular landscapes. Executive director Jay Laubengyer considers this region – Cape May and Cumberland counties in New Jersey and Sussex County, Delaware – one of the world’s most important landscapes for biological diversity. “We work only where we can have an impact,” he says “The Delaware Bay is a crossroad of a wide spectrum of migratory birds, tens of thousands of songbirds, beach-nesting birds, spring migratory shorebirds, raptors, water fowl and wading birds.”
Beyond acquiring land, TNC manages an active educational, interpretive program for local schools, residents and neighbors of shorebird and crab beaches. “This is not recreation. We’re creating awareness and support of conservation,” says Dillingham. “We’re making a real effort to improve public access to 18 wildlife preserves in New Jersey, with trails, parking, observation platforms and signage. At the Cape May migratory bird refuge, which hosts 300,00 visitors a year, we work with local communities to develop compatible uses of land. That might include ecotourism or sustainable agriculture, which means agriculture that’s friendly to the environment. One family has been farming here since the 1600s. We’re helping them preserve 1,000 acres that are not ideal farmland, and we purchased adjacent acres that they continue to farm tomatoes, peppers and asparagus.
“We have a repository for globally rare plants and animals. Sometimes we bypass a beautiful piece of forest that has no endangered species.” Residential and commercial development threaten the Delaware Bayshore, with Route 55 turning Far South Jersey from a backwater into a Philadelphia suburb. The Conservancy attempts to increase development in towns with existing roads, mass transit and sewage lines and reduce it in agricultural, wetlands and forest areas.
“The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.” says the narrator in “A River Runs through It.” Eventually “All things merge into one, and a river runs through it. I am haunted by waters.”