By Collin O'Mara
The Delaware River Basin is not only the cradle of American democracy, it is our region's economic engine. Yet for the past few years, political battles have defined it, and nowhere is this chasm more evident than in recent deliberations of the Delaware River Basin Commission.
Despite supplying drinking water to more than 15 million Americans and playing a critical role for both the environment and the economy of the East Coast, the Delaware receives little national attention and no dedicated federal funding.
Why? Because we lack a shared vision that transcends state boundaries and enjoys the support of different levels of government and local communities. While the William Penn Foundation and other partners are making unprecedented investments, without an actionable basin-wide agreement or hard commitments among the region's governors and municipal leaders, every fight takes on a heightened importance out of widespread fear of further resource degradation.
Tom Wolf's election presents an opportunity to reset the regional conversation. With the Keystone State occupying half of the land of the basin, his leadership is essential. A regional vision and strategy should include at least five elements: clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational access, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.
Clean water: For years, states and municipalities have worked to upgrade wastewater plants and reduce pollution from industrial facilities. Today, three-quarters of the pollution comes from runoff, ranging from too many nutrients from agriculture to legacy toxic substances being washed from the soils into the water and contaminating fish. Finalizing the Clean Water Rule, which clarifies waterways and wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act, will help, but there is much more to do.
Wildlife habitat: Conservation efforts are helping restore osprey, shad, and horseshoe crabs, but more must be done to help sturgeon, oysters, and mussels, and we must continue to reduce industrial impacts on fisheries.
Recreational access: Enhancing ecotourism, such as birding, hiking, hunting, and angling, from the Water Gap to the Bayshores, and developing a comprehensive network of recreational trails, are critical components of any integrated recreational strategy.
Economic sustainability: The University of Delaware's Gerald Kauffman calculated that the basin produces more than $20 billion of economic benefits annually and supports more than a half-million jobs. The opportunities from restoring the Delaware range from more robust commercial fisheries to expanded tourism and urban revitalization.
Climate resilience: Across the region, we're seeing local governments invest in natural infrastructure to protect against flooding and storms. These projects are strengthening communities, improving water quality, and beautifying cities.
Securing a regional agreement centered on a shared vision and priorities won't be easy, but it's possible. Together we can restore the Delaware Basin, and leave a legacy of strengthening our economy and enhancing our natural resources.