Introduced this spring, the initiative could help repair Delaware's heavily impacted lakes, streams and ponds

An innovative new program could see Delaware’s environmentally impacted waterways become healthier in a generation’s time.

Gov. Jack Markell recently introduced the Clean Water Initiative, which his administration hopes will generate additional funding for wastewater, stormwater and drinking water projects throughout the state.

Speaking at the Red Clay Valley Association’s annual meeting, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control secretary Collin O'Mara said that nearly all of the state’s waterways are polluted, most heavily from pre-regulation industrial waste from the 1970s.

Stormwater runoff is also a major contributor to the problem, O’Mara said, including outside the bay and shore regions, largely due to outdated stormwater management systems.

The continually failing infrastructure, O’Mara said, could also undo any serious gains made in the interim.

“Challenges persist, to be sure,” O’Mara said. “If we continue on our current path, clean water is still decades away, but it is something we can all work towards.”

O’Mara said that the conditions of Delaware’s waterways is “both embarrassing and unacceptable,” noting that only 6 percent of its rivers are considered healthy enough to support aquatic life, while only 14 percent are considered safe for swimming.

Of its lakes and ponds, only 26 percent are healthy enough for aquatic life, with 59 percent considered safe for water activities.

In showing a photograph of his daughter taking a jump into Lums Pond, O’Mara remarked that it was after he’d checked the bacteria levels on the water beforehand.

“No father should have to think to check the bacteria level before his two-year-old goes swimming,” O’Mara said.

Beyond the obvious health benefits associated with cleaner water, O’Mara also said that the success of the states multi-billion dollar tourist industry hinges on attracting people to its waterways.

He also said the projects associated with the Clean Water initiative could generate upwards of 5,000 jobs, many of which would persist after the project is completed.

The initiative would be funded by a small addition to property tax bills, which O’Mara said averages out to $45 per household per year.

Roughly $30 million in existing state clean water funds could also be used to fund the initiative, O’Mara said.

When fully implemented, O’Mara said that there could be measurable results as early as 2030, but that the outlook persists far beyond that date.

Jim Jordan, executive director at the RCVA, said that the initiative is something that is desperately needed.

“We’ve been working for 62 years trying to get people to recognize the importance of water,” Jordan said. “And in one fell swoop, Collin and Jack Markell have everyone in Delaware talking about water.”