Research & Policy

A Blueprint for Protecting Water Resources

An OSI planning grant ensures clean water goes hand-in-hand with development in the Upper Delaware River Basin

Located atop the far northern reaches of the Delaware River, New York’s Sullivan County plays a critical role in protecting the forested headwater streams that empty into the larger watershed — the source of drinking water for 15 million residents living in Philadelphia, Trenton, and other major cities.

As the County looks to attract new investment to the region following several significant development projects in recent years, conservation groups and local officials alike view clean water as essential to sustainable economic growth.

Since 2014, Open Space Institute (OSI), with support of the William Penn Foundation, has partnered with organizations through the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) to embed water quality protection in local and regional planning.  

In late 2017, the Town of Thompson and Village of Monticello completed “Grow the Gateways” – a strategic land use and development plan outlining opportunities and design considerations for redevelopment along the NY Route 17 corridor. DRWI partners Natural Lands and Delaware Highlands Conservancy secured a $32,000 planning grant from OSI’s Watershed Catalyst fund to work with the Sullivan County Division of Planning & Community Development on a Water Resources Protection Strategy (WRPS) to identify specific restoration and protection measures to safeguard water quality during the implementation of the Grow the Gateways plan.

From the beginning, the county planning staff was excited about the potential for the project. “We’re a small planning department in a big county,” said Freda Eisenberg, Commissioner of the Sullivan County Division of Planning. “The Catalyst grant provided an opportunity to expand our work and bring more attention and resources to water quality protection, which otherwise would have received less focus.”

The WRPS provides a menu of strategies for maintaining and improving water quality in Thompson, Monticello, and Forestburgh through land use policy, green stormwater infrastructure, land protection, and restoration. The yearlong effort yielded a robust set of recommendations for local officials, who wield broad decision-making authority over how land is used, and where and how development occurs.

The Delaware Highlands Conservancy identified areas where land management and protection could supply multiple benefits to the region’s rural character and recreation economy while supporting water quality and flood resilience, and furnished municipalities with a list of conservation funding sources.

Natural Lands completed detailed reviews of the subdivision and land development ordinances of the three municipalities and offered specific recommendations for revising design standards for new development, updating zoning districts, and incorporating low-impact development techniques to protect water quality. Based on Natural Lands’ recommendations, Thompson is now taking a critical look at its parking space requirements and design standards in commercial districts and considering options to manage stormwater runoff with green infrastructure features like porous pavement, and rain gardens featuring native plants.

Natural Lands calculated the water quality benefits of installing green infrastructure projects at seven sites within the Grow the Gateways study area with the help Model My Watershed®, an online tool developed by DRWI partner Stroud Water Research Center. The model showed that constructing a rain garden in a single parking lot could lessen untreated runoff by as much as 60 percent, and significantly reduce concentrations of pollutants like suspended solids, nitrogen, and phosphorous. Encouraged by the numbers, the County plans to “green” a prominent public parking area as a model for residents and visitors.

The ultimate goal explains Ann Hutchinson, Senior Director of Municipal Planning at Natural Lands, is to move from planning to implementation. OSI’s grant has equipped the communities with guidance and best prospects to strengthen protection of water resources, but towns will require further support and resources to take the next steps. Now DRWI partners working in the region can continue to provide municipalities financial and technical assistance to see priority projects over the finish line.

“I see the Catalyst grant as a great opportunity to work with the County and Delaware Highlands Conservancy to try to drum up interest from the municipalities,” Hutchinson stated. “And then once you have interest, you’ve got to have some vehicle for following through, which is what the Delaware River Watershed Initiative provides.”

The OSI grantees laud the planning as a forward-thinking effort to safeguard water quality, mitigate impacts from the built environment, and make the region a more attractive place to live and visit.

Abigail Weinberg, OSI’s Director of Research views this project as evidence of how conservation can work hand-in-hand with regional planning to ensure smart development that retains clean water. “Our success in protecting water quality in the Delaware Basin will depend on strategic and proactive partnerships,” stated Weinberg. “Examples like this are critical to the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.”

OSI’s Watershed Catalyst Grant Program is made possible through the generosity of the William Penn Foundation.

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