The Riverkeeper’s Quest to Protect the Delaware River Watershed as the Rains Fall and Sea Level Rises

With Wildfires Raging in the West and Hurricane Ida Pounding the Gulf Coast, the Swollen Delaware Signals Climate Change in the Northeast.

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View from Pennsylvania to New Jersey over the Delaware River. Credit: Jumping Rocks/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
View from Pennsylvania to New Jersey over the Delaware River. Credit: Jumping Rocks/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

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For years Melinda Willard has spent the majority of her summer Saturdays lazily floating in an inner-tube on the Delaware River from Frenchtown to Stockton, New Jersey. 

She witnessed a huge increase in tubers and kayakers on the river last year during the pandemic, when people discovered the attraction of being outside with Covid-19 restricting indoor activities. 

But this summer, tubing season got pushed back until the end of July because the river rose six feet above normal by the second weekend of the month, as climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of precipitation in the region. 

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In Pennsylvania, precipitation has increased 10 percent since 1910, with some areas experiencing a 20 percent rise, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. An increase of another 8 percent is projected by 2050. Between 1958 and 2010, the department reports, the Northeastern United States saw a 70 percent increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy rain storms. 

With the remnants of Hurricane Ida, now a tropical storm, expected to bring three to four inches of rain to the Philadelphia region by Wednesday, flash flood warnings are in effect along the Delaware River watershed from Wednesday morning through Thursday afternoon. 

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), a nonprofit organization established in 1988, is fully engaged in a multi-front battle against the greenhouse gas emissions warming the planet, advocating policies designed to achieve net zero emissions within the 2030 to 2050 timeframe. 

The riverkeeper network, in its quest to stop fracking in Pennsylvania and the development of all related fossil fuel infrastructure, is now calling on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to begin taking climate change impacts into consideration when granting permission for new pipeline projects. 

The network has previously called on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to impose a moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state. Two years ago, it filed suit to stop construction of a liquified natural gas export facility on the Delaware in Gloucester County, New Jersey. 

The network has also helped lead the fight against the Penneast Pipeline, a 116-mile conduit that would run beneath numerous wetlands and waterways, including the Delaware, to connect the natural gas fields of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale to Mercer County, New Jersey. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that New Jersey could not refuse to make state land available for the pipeline through eminent domain, as the state had attempted. But Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, has vowed to continue the fight against Penneast during the permitting process before the Delaware River Basin Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of New Jersey.    

“It’s the community that is working with me to give the river a voice in our human world and making sure it gets all the care that it needs and is entitled to,” said van Rossum. “Government throughout time has been very complacent and happy to ignore our urging, but we have brought forth the science and really tried to get that engaged in all the decisions that are made.” 

“Flooding Is a Part of a River’s Life Cycle”

The Delaware River Basin Commission formed its first advisory committee on climate change two years ago, just as Tropical Storm Isaias produced serious flooding in the Philadelphia area, with creeks and rivers in the watershed cresting to record highs. Perkiomen Creek in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, rose to over 19 feet, breaking the previous record set in 1935 by nearly a foot. 

The Delaware Riverkeepers Network is urging floodplain protection and restoration as a response, trying to get developers and local governments to stop building, or rebuilding, in the same dangerous places they know will flood again and become even more vulnerable in the future because of climate change. 

“Flooding is a part of a river’s life cycle,” said van Rossum. “Yes, it is growing because of the climate crisis, but the reason why we have so many issues with the flood damages is because of the inappropriate development and redevelopment that has continued to take place within our watershed.”

She said there are historic structures, and special reasons for why rehabilitation or rebuilding may be necessary after a flood in a particular location that is highly flood prone. But those need to be the exceptions, she said, not the rules.

Although building houses on stilts seems like a potential solution for the flooding problem along the river, she said, those houses remaining in the pathway of the floods are at significant risk. As the climate crisis grows and flood waters rise due to increasing rainfall or sea level rise, she said, those stilts are not going to give the level of protection that’s needed.

“Having a home or structure located in the floodplains compromises the ability of that floodplain to soak up floodwaters in order to protect people downstream, so it’s a double whammy,” Rossum said. “You are endangering the people that are remaining in the flood prone area and exacerbating and increasing flooding and flood damages for those who are living downstream.”

The Dark Hollow Dam across Neshaminy Creek in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, was proposed in the 1990s to control flooding and protect houses. But the Delaware Riverkeeper Network succeeded in helping stop it, arguing that structural solutions like the dam would only exacerbate the flooding problem. When dams fail, van Rossum said, they produce catastrophic damages, including potential loss of life. The best way to reduce flood damages, she said, is to move people out of the path of harm. 

A Complex Ecosystem Made More so by Climate Change

Over the past two decades, the riverkeeper has also led the battle against dredging of the Delaware River, an ongoing Army Corps project to increase the competitiveness of the Port of Philadelphia. With sea level rise, van Rossum said, the deepening of the Delaware River channel  has serious implications for the Delaware estuary and ecosystem, potentially causing the loss of critical wetlands. 

The Delaware River has a genetically unique line of Atlantic sturgeon that only exist in its waters, with less than 600 spawning adults left. The quality of the water and the quality of the habitat that the surgeon need to spawn is vitally important when the species is literally on the cusp of extinction, van Rossum said. 

“The deepening itself was a major blow to the sturgeon,” she said.  “Also the sea level rise is a critical threat to the sturgeon because moving the salt water further up into the estuary, combined with the deepening project, does increasingly shrink the fresh water portion of the Delaware estuary, which is that portion of the estuary that the sturgeon need to spawn.”

The dredging only moves the so-called “salt line” up the river, where “high-tide” flooding, resulting from sea level rise, is increasing in Philadelphia, which occupies the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. The city had eight days of high-tide flooding in 2018. With the sea level continuing to rise, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that number will rise to between 30 and 105 days by 2050. 

The permanent solution, van Rossum said, involves working with the river, rather than trying to control the river. “By honoring the way a river system actually operates, we protect people from the growing harms that are due to the climate crises, but we also contribute to the solution of the climate crisis.” 

Beyond curbing carbon emissions, preserving, protecting and restoring these natural ecosystems to act as carbon sinks are important parts of the climate solution, she said. 

“Seeing the Values and Benefits”

Melinda Willard came to see the pandemic-induced crowds of tubers and kayakers on the river as a natural line of defense. With no carbon footprint, floating down the river enabled people to experience and understand the importance of the Delaware River and all the things it has to provide to the community.

And with the increased activity on the Delaware, van Rossum said, the riverkeeper network is able to more easily make the case against fracking and the need to keep toxic fracking waste water from coming into the watershed for treatment, storage and disposal.

“People are actually seeing the values and benefits of that advocacy work and those protection efforts in that very real, hands-on experiential way,” she said. “That is incredible value added.” 

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