The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary is preparing to undertake a 2-year climate change study, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, to investigate how rising sea levels could harm the estuary.

Climate change and rising sea levels could have a devastating effect on the Delaware Estuary, endangering wildlife, drinking water and economic prosperity throughout the Delaware Valley.

To prepare for environmental problems lurking on the horizon, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary is embarking on a 2-year climate study of the estuary that will start in October, said Jennifer Adkins, executive director of the organization.

The study will be funded by a $50,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is sponsoring climate studies in six estuaries across the nation.

Estuaries are too valuable to be sacrificed in the name of pollution-coated progress and they are particularly susceptible to damage from climate change because they are low-lying areas where freshwater and saltwater mix, said Adkins.

The Delaware Estuary is the 6,800 square mile region, from Trenton, N.J., to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, encompassing the Delaware River and dozens of streams and rivers that drain into the waterway, she explained.

Because the water’s salt content varies throughout the estuary, it is home to a wide variety of plants and acts as a breeding ground for many species of fish that need different salt levels at different points in their lifespan, she said.

If climate change causes sea levels to rise, saltwater will flood the estuary, transforming the fish-friendly habitat overnight and doing irreparable damage to the ecosystem, she said.

The partnership is particularly concerned about the negative effects on tidal wetlands, sea-level marshes where tides and freshwater runoff combine to produce a healthy habitat for hundreds of species of plants, said Adkins.

They also worry about damage to shellfish, like mussels and oysters, that fulfill an important environmental task by cleaning and filtering water, she said.

Water from the Delaware Estuary is vital to more than fish – it is sipped, gulped and guzzled by 15.1 million people living inside and outside the estuary, said Adkins.

Changes in salt levels could damage the drinking water supply and also harm hundreds of industries that rely on water from the Delaware River, she said.

By studying the estuary’s climate-change vulnerabilities, Adkins hopes to identify activities that will help the environment.

“We want to try to prevent the worst impacts and adapt to the inevitable ones,” she said.

One solution could be to protect areas of land around tidal marshes so the marshes can migrate if they are flooded with saltwater, she said. Everyone needs to reduce their carbon footprint to help protect the estuary, she said.

No one knows exactly how climate change will affect the fragile Delaware Estuary, but people who drink water pumped from the estuary, work at an industry along the shore of the Delaware River, or enjoy fishing, boating, and swimming all have something to lose if the habitat vanishes, said Adkins.