Making conservation history in the Delaware Basin

In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed into the Delaware Bay and proclaimed the area suitable for a settlement without ever setting foot on shore. He had good instincts.

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Before Henry Hudson descended upon the river that would ultimately bear his name, he gave the Delaware Bay a favorable review. 

Today eight million people live in the Delaware River watershed and rely on the basin for clean water, jobs, food, and recreation. And they’re not alone. The watershed is 50 percent forested and encompasses more than a million acres of wetlands; it’s an ideal place for thousands of species of fish and wildlife to settle, too.

“We’re that middle spot: the southernmost extent of northern species ranges, the northernmost extent of southern species ranges, and the migration link between,” said John Parke, Stewardship Project Director for New Jersey Audubon. “It’s always amazing when I’m out in the field to see the diversity of people and communities here — from agriculture, to industry, to suburbs — and yet integrated throughout the whole area is this incredible diversity of wildlife as well.”

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New Jersey Audubon’s John Parke speaks to farmers in Sussex County about how buffers are good for their land and water quality. Photo: Courtesy NJ Audubon

Parke had just come in from a day in the field showing agricultural landowners some of the conservation work NJ Audubon has supported for wildlife and people in the area. The first stop was a winery that installed a pollinator meadow that doubles as stormwater runoff control. Next was a livestock farm that had adopted prescribed grazing techniques that not only create habitat for declining grassland birds like bobolink, meadowlark, and savannah sparrows, but also reduce erosion to improve both soil and water quality.

“The idea was to show some of the conservation practices they could use on their own property, and then down the line, we can help them apply for funding to make it happen,” Parke said.

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Bobolinks enjoying the pasture where a livestock farmer uses prescribed grazing techniques to create habitat for grassland birds. Photo: John Parke, NJ Audubon

For Parke, this outing was business as usual and a reflection of the ongoing coordination among partners in the basin to conserve and sustain the area’s natural resources. New Jersey Audubon is one of 130 members that make up the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, founded in 2012 to align partners involved in conservation and restoration, and the driving force behind passage of the 2016 Delaware River Basin Conservation Act.

It’s easy to understand why everyone wants to coordinate.

“Putting conservation on the ground in harmony with all those people takes a lot of organizations working together, and it takes buy in from communities as well,” Parke said.

It also takes funding. In early August, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation launched the $5 million Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund with federal appropriations administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The fund represents the first step in implementing a strategy developed by partners last winter with guidance from the Service to focus conservation on four key areas– clean water, habitat, recreation, and flow management.

“It’s a different way to conceive of partnership,” said Mike Slattery, the Service’s Delaware River Watershed Coordinator. He speaks from experience. Slattery is the Service’s former coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Delaware program is modeled after partnerships like the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, which takes a non-regulatory approach to implementing provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act through collaborative habitat prioritization, restoration, and conservation. “It’s voluntary, incentive driven, and has a proven record of success,” Slattery said.

You don’t need to look far for proof. Partners have long been leveraging resources for collective impact in the Delaware River watershed. Parke’s work with agricultural producers leverages funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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A good sign for the Delaware River watershed. Photo: Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Susan Myerov, Watersheds Program Director for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, facilitates a partnership addressing stream health and stormwater management in greater Philadelphia that leverages funding from the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.

“Most of the places we work in are suburban communities with a lot of impervious cover where stream function is impaired,” Myerov said. “We partner with universities and watershed organizations to target areas where we can get the most bang for our buck through restoration and community education projects, like municipal rain gardens in the Cobbs Creek watershed.”

Jake McPherson, Regional Biologist for Ducks Unlimited, used North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds from the Service to conserve 1,082 acres of emergent and forested wetlands at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.

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Translation: Welcome home, ducks! Photo: Jake McPherson, Ducks Unlimited

All of them are submitting proposals for the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund, too.

“There’s an abundance of habitat and restoration work to be done in the watershed, and more funding means more opportunities,” McPherson said. And more opportunities mean more benefits.

“The Delaware River basin in an important corridor for migratory waterfowl, and our work focuses on supporting these species throughout their life cycles,” he said. “But there are public benefits that go well beyond habitat.”

For example, water storage, water quality, filtering of contaminants — and let’s not forget fun. “In Delaware, every resident lives within 30 miles of the coast,” McPherson pointed out. “Where do you think these people go for recreation?”

If Hudson were to sail into the Delaware Bay today, he’d be dodging fishing boats, kayaks, sunfish, yachts, and cargo ships. He would find its shores thoroughly settled by people with a stake in ensuring the basin remains a suitable place to live for generations.

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Visitors enjoying nature right in southwest Philadelphia at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS

“Along the bay, you have all of these pristine capes, hooks, and wetlands in such close proximity to industrial and urban areas — just think of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge right in southwest Philadelphia,” Slattery said. “It’s easy to envision that with an all-hands-on-deck approach, we can achieve a significant degree of conservation and restoration here.”

The Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund is accepting proposals until Sept. 27.

Check out some of the other restoration efforts underway led by the Service and partners throughout the Delaware watershed:

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