Jeff Skelding is the Executive Director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware River, a non-profit organization based in Hancock, N.Y. that focuses on protection and restoration of the magnificent cold-water ecosystem of the Upper Delaware River Basin. Learn more at https://www.fudr.org/.
As a kid growing up knee-deep swimming, fishing, and boating in the Delaware River in Bucks County, PA, I had no idea where the river “started.” In fact, the question probably never even dawned on me, for if it had, I probably would have said, “Upper Black Eddy?”
Thirty years later, with a lifetime of conservation work under my belt, I consider myself fortunate to be back in the Delaware watershed, but this time in its most northern reaches serving as Executive Director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware River (FUDR).
It has been fascinating for me to learn about the Upper Delaware River Basin. I refer especially to how this region differs from the lower parts of the basin in so many ways. The ecological quality of the upper watershed for example, while not pristine, is remarkably healthy by any standard especially given its proximity to several major east coast cities.
Another observation is how the management of the upper watershed has significant down basin impacts. For example, many people in Philadelphia probably have no idea that New York City plays a role in protecting their drinking water supply. This is because water releases from the NYC Delaware River Basin water supply reservoirs in the western Catskill mountains help keep the Delaware Bay salt front from creeping too close to Philadelphia’s water supply intakes, especially during hot summers. Impacts from climate change, including sea level rise and increased drought periods, will make these freshwater releases from the upper basin even more important to the lower basin.
There are stark social, cultural, and political differences in the upper Delaware region compared to the rest of the watershed. These differences present daily challenges in FUDR’s efforts to protect and restore the river system. I think most of us would agree that the best approach to watershed protection is a holistic one, where we are unifying and not dividing. That approach is not always easy in the rural upper watershed where local passions are often inflamed by the decisions of distant regulators.
We see this most vividly in the debate over fracking and the management of the NYC water supply reservoirs. But also in increasing tourism activities, second home investments (accelerated by COVID), and the cultural contrasts surrounding the globally renowned wild trout fishery in the Upper Delaware River’s tailwaters.
Fortunately, decades of hard work, courageous communication, and the recognition that ecological protection goes hand in hand with economic improvement is starting to pay off in the Upper Delaware region. While there will always be differences, the emergence of new alliances and coalitions comprised of diverse watershed stakeholders is slowly but surely blazing a new path forward.
One of the best examples is how these conservation coalitions have helped secure a meaningful federal investment in Upper Delaware watershed protection through the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program (DRBRP). The conservation projects funded by the DRBRP yield multiple benefits, including water quality and habitat protection, enhanced recreational opportunities, job creation, and infrastructure protection. In other words, there is something in it for everybody. That is the new language of watershed protection in the Upper Delaware River region, and it is really starting to make a difference!