The Delaware River springs from the tranquil woodland streams of the Pocono Mountains, and then swells and gains force as it meanders through 42 counties in five mid-Atlantic States. Along the way, the 300-mile-long river winds through productive farmland and past the highly populated cities of Philadelphia, Trenton, Camden, and Wilmington, providing safe and reliable drinking water for an impressive 15 million people — approximately five percent of the nation’s population.
Yet, as the region’s populations increase and development spreads, the fragility of this water system is hard to overstate. In 2013, the Open Space Institute with support from the William Penn Foundation, embarked on an expansive initiative to incorporate a range of land-based strategies to protect the long-term health of the Delaware River. Among these strategies are actively protecting the forested lands that feed and surround the river; employing targeted, research-based conservation techniques to address concerns about runoff from farms and other developed areas; and encouraging local communities to embrace cost-effective, natural methods to protect their local water sources.
Thanks to the partnership, critical properties within the Delaware River watershed totaling 11,000 acres have been permanently protected, with another 11,000 acres in the conservation queue. “The protection of these lands today is a huge conservation victory that will benefit communities throughout the region for years to come, and the William Penn Foundation is a true visionary in this regard,” says OSI executive vice president Peter Howell, who oversees OSI’s Delaware River Watershed Fund.
In 2018, the effort gained momentum as the Penn Foundation granted OSI an additional $12 million to expand the initiative. Through the fund, OSI is awarding conservation grants to local land trusts, for which the funding is matched — leveraging public and private dollars.
“OSI has been absolutely instrumental in accelerating the pace of land protection in the Delaware River Watershed,” says Greg Romano, director of Statewide Land Acquisition at New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “There are projects that just would not have happened were it not for OSI.”
Andrew Johnson, director of the Watershed Protection Program at the William Penn Foundation, also spoke to the impact of OSI’s land protection efforts.“What we are achieving through our partnership with OSI amounts to much more than the number of acres that are being protected; it’s about the cumulative impact of strategic conservation to preserve water quality,” says Johnson. “By partnering with local land trusts and working with communities to embrace smart, cost-effective conservation, OSI has proven to be an invaluable part of the effort to protect the Delaware.”
It all begins with the forests. Forested land serves as a natural filter to water flowing into the river and helps maintain the long-term health of the river. Therefore, maintaining the unspoiled, upstream forests is critically important to ensuring clean water for millions of people in the region.
Moreover, OSI’s Peter Howell explains that the risk of not protecting forests is twofold. “It’s not only the loss of the filtration benefits,” he notes, “but once a forest is lost to development, the degradation is often significant and long-lasting.” Studies show that converting as little as 3 to 10 percent of a watershed to impervious surfaces can make water quality difficult, if not impossible, to restore to its original state.
This scenario underscores the tangible benefits of OSI’s Delaware River Watershed Protection Fund, which in 2018 alone finalized 14 conservation projects that protected more than 5,700 acres in the watershed. Among them was the permanent protection of the largest property remaining in private hands in the New Jersey Highlands. The Hudson Farm project, completed in partnership with The Land Conservancy of New Jersey, conserved more than 2,400 acres in densely populated northeastern New Jersey. This effort protected almost 10 percent of the Lubber’s Run watershed, a tract that contains some of the state’s cleanest headwater streams that feed the Musconetcong River, the largest tributary of the Delaware River Watershed flowing from the Highlands.
“The conservation value of this property was very significant,” says OSI’s mid-Atlantic coordinator, Bill Rawlyk. “It’s a rare day when a single transaction can protect almost 10 percent of a critical watershed.”