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William Penn Foundation gives $42M to protect Delaware River, bringing total to $100M

Started in 2014, the initiative coordinates 65 nonprofits to help protect the watershed that ultimately feeds into the Delaware River and provides drinking water for more than 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The groups pool resources, provide scientific expertise, monitor water quality at 500 sites, restore wetlands.

A portion of the 500 acres containing headwaters of the Lehigh River acquired by the Wildlands Conservancy and ultimately funded by the William Penn Foundation.
A portion of the 500 acres containing headwaters of the Lehigh River acquired by the Wildlands Conservancy and ultimately funded by the William Penn Foundation.Read moreWildlands Conservancy

Philadelphia's William Penn Foundation says it is injecting an additional $42 million into protecting the Delaware River watershed, an area encompassing thousands of square miles that provides drinking water and recreation to people in four states.

The money, to be spent over three years, will bring the total to more than $100 million the foundation has pledged to the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, which began in 2014. Janet Haas, chairwoman of the foundation, made the announcement Wednesday at Adventure Aquarium on the Camden waterfront.

"When we led the creation of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, our intent was to serve as a catalyst for accelerated watershed protection in our region," Haas said. "We wanted to build a framework that would harness the enormous capacity of conservation organizations to work together on a shared approach, and to see whether that critical mass could affect greater change."

The initiative funds and coordinates efforts among 65 nonprofits working to protect the watershed, which covers all the land and waterways that ultimately funnel and filter rainwater into the Delaware River. The groups pool resources, provide scientific expertise, restore wetlands, buy land, and monitor water quality at 500 stations.  The watershed provides drinking water for more than 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Lehigh, Brandywine, and Schuylkill rivers, along with other major waterways including the underground Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer in South Jersey, all feed a watershed that totals 13,500 square miles. It includes some of the region's most stunning landscapes such as the Catskills, Poconos, Delaware Water Gap, and New Jersey Highlands and Pinelands. Its headwaters originate in southern New York and northeastern Pennsylvania.

About half the pollution in the watershed, also referred to as the Delaware River Basin, is due to runoff from building sprawl, agricultural pesticides, and the reduction of forests and wetlands that act as buffers or filters. To address that, the initiative has helped purchase 19,604 acres and restore 8,331 acres.  The initiative has also attracted $73 million in matching grants and private donations.

"We are among the largest private foundations making grants for freshwater conservation in the country," said Andrew Johnson, who manages the program for the foundation. "It's significant as a philanthropic effort and highly complementary to work being done by states and the federal government under the Clean Water Act."

The Delaware River Watershed Initiative works with various levels of government and is regarded as a national model, Johnson said.  Key, he said, is a scientific approach to gathering and sharing data used to identify restoration projects for acquisitions.  Prior to the initiative, nonprofits worked independently, without coordinated effort.

Now, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University leads the science. Other major partners include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Open Space Institute, and the Institute for Conservation Leadership.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity to protect important forest land in the Delaware River Basin," Peter Howell, an executive vice president with the Open Space Institute, said of the funding.

Howell said land purchases and restoration projects are lined up in various locations.  As an example, he noted the just-completed purchase of 500 acres of headwaters of the Lehigh River.  The Wildlands Conservancy and Open Space Institute worked on the purchase with money from the William Penn Foundation.   He said other purchases are in the works and will include additional headwaters in the Poconos and near the Delaware Water Gap.

"Forests play an important role in keeping water clean," Howell said.  "If you lose the forests at the top of the system, you lose everything downstream. We're trying to keep them intact, so the water stays clean."

Roland Wall, director of the Patrick Center of Environmental Research at the Academy of Natural Sciences, said the funding contributes to an extensive monitoring system that "produces real-time data on water quality."  He said the data help pinpoint project areas that will have the greatest impact.

"We can analyze the potential impacts of projects across the watershed in order to pinpoint areas of greatest potential change, and measure whether our efforts had an effect on the water," Wall said.

"The changes we want to see in the watershed take years and decades," Wall said. "So the willingness for the foundation to make this long-term commitment is really important."

Here are specifics on how the money will be spent over the next three years:

  1. $11 million to the Open Space Institute for technical assistance and land preservation.

  2. $8 million to National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for technical assistance and land restoration.

  3. $3.21 million to Academy of Natural Sciences as science lead in planning, implementation, and evaluation of the initiative.

  4. $1.23 million to Institute for Conservation Leadership for organizational expertise.

  5. $15.78 million to eight "clusters" of partnering organizations including the Brandywine-Christina, Kirkwood-Cohansey, Middle Schuylkill, New Jersey Highlands, Poconos-Kittatinny, Schuylkill Highlands, Upper Lehigh, and Upstream Suburban Philadelphia clusters.

  6. An additional $3.5 million to the Open Space Institute and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for previous work.