Delaware's Clean Water Campaign is hoping to guide legislation to help improve water quality statewide

A group working to make Delaware waterways cleaner is hoping a new campaign will help show people how their behavior can help improve this resource.

With clean, safe water a necessary commodity everywhere, the Clean Water Delaware Campaign is working to address the problem through funding, education and advocacy.

The state created the Clean Water and Flood Abatement Task Force in 2015. With leaders in business, agriculture, conservation, education and government, the task force was charged with identifying and recommending potential funding mechanisms to improve water quality and alleviate flooding.

The task force released its findings in 2017. Since then, dozens of stakeholders have joined to form the Clean Water Alliance, a broad-based coalition dedicated to educate the public on water safety concerns and increase funding for improving water quality.

The Clean Water Campaign started with a June rally, where 150 Delawareans gathered in Dover to urge lawmakers to support Clean Water Delaware with funding and legislation.

The Delaware Nature Society is an alliance member. According to Brenna Goggin, director of advocacy, many people have an optimistic view of their water when the opposite may be true.

Goggin said, in speaking with residents before formation of the alliance, they found a disconnect between what people do day-to-day and their understanding of the effect on water sources.

“They didn’t feel any sense of responsibility,” she said. “They heard the stories, and we’ve done a good job telling them what development does, and what agriculture does … but I don’t think they made the connection with a car leaking oil, or walking their dog and not picking up their feces, or that nice green grass and the fertilizer they spray to keep it that way.”

While many nonprofit agencies work to educate the public on water quality, she said, folks would rather hear it from the professionals.

“Some people listen to nonprofits, and for others it’s not a place where they’re comfortable as a source for information for them,” Goggin said. “That’s why it was important to have geologists and engineers and other professionals as part of the coalition. We needed those organizations on board.”

Quality improving

Gerald Kauffman, project director for the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Agency and Institute for Public Administration, said stream quality in northern Delaware has improved since the creation of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

“Northern Delaware gets three-quarters of its drinking water from streams that originate in Pennsylvania and a small part of Maryland – the Brandywine, the White Clay and the Red Clay creeks,” he said. “Those are potable streams, and I would give them collectively about a B-minus to a B.”

The goal, he said, is to get those streams back to an A-plus rating – something they haven’t been since the area was first settled more than 400 years ago.

“It’s possible, but not probable in the near future,” Kauffman said. “If we shoot for the stars and reach the moon, that’ll be OK. There are a few small streams in Delaware and that flow into Delaware from upstate that are very pristine – we’re talking about changing the big streams [like] the Brandywine and the Red Clay.”

Kauffman said there have been tremendous strides in cleaning water in northern Delaware over the last 30 or 40 years – something that’s gratifying to anyone who works in the field.

“The biggest problems have occurred over the course of a century, so more work is needed,” Kauffman said.

Agricultural runoff from upstream, coupled with industrial legacy pollutants, are still affecting the streams, although pollutants have been drastically reduced by better management.

In Delaware below the C&D Canal, Kauffman said, the aquifers used by most people for their drinking water in areas near the beach are a mile deep, leaving them largely unaffected.

Shallow aquifers farther inland, however, are a different story.

“When you get into the shallow aquifers inland, you have the concerns with nitrogen, and the invasion of sea water into the drinking water. And that’s not just Delaware, that’s also happening up and down the Mid-Atlantic seaboard,” he said.

According to the task force report, nitrite concentrations are a problem in the unconfined aquifers in rural Kent and Sussex counties, where agriculture and poultry production are major land uses and the primary method of wastewater treatment is by individual septic systems.

Runoff from those regions into the inland bays can cause algal blooms and increased bacteria levels that affect the tourist industry.

Red streams blue

Upstream from New Castle County, in Pennsylvania, nonprofits like the Stroud Water Research Center and the Brandywine Red Clay Alliance are working to monitor and improve water quality.

For over a decade, the BRCA has used their “Red Streams Blue” program to take streams identified as impacted – or red – and put in place changes to significantly improve water quality, to change them to blue.

While most work has been in Pennsylvania, helping smaller streams and tributaries of the Brandywine and Red Clay creeks, BRCA executive director Jim Jordan said they recently completed their first project in Delaware off Old Wilmington Road.

Many of the projects rely on redirecting the stream flow and adding native plants and riparian buffers to help mitigate runoff and to increase shadow cover on the stream.

Jordan said it’s imperative to let people know how critically important clean water is to Delaware.

“Like anything valuable, it comes at a cost, and I think we’re underfunding that cost,” Jordan said. “There needs to be appropriations, and there needs to be a viable fund for clean water. It’s a valuable resource many people take for granted until it’s not there.”

He added that there is funding available in other states – in Pennsylvania there are fees, taxes and programs like the Growing Greener fund that pay nonprofits to establish watershed improvements – and that he’d like to see Delaware improve in that area.

“I’ve been down to Dover and met with legislators, but it’s always a hard ticket to sell, especially when you see taxes for other things going up,” Jordan said. “But there’s always something else, and that’s where I think our frustration in the conservation community comes from.”

Finding dollars

Goggin said the task force report estimated that roughly $100 million a year is needed to address ongoing concerns like decaying infrastructure, quality improvement projects and public education.

“That [amount] addresses every aspect of clean water – agriculture, conservation, flooding, toxins removal, non-point source pollution. It runs the gamut,” Goggin said. “And it’s just not possible for the state to dedicate $100 million on an annual basis.”

Producing those funds, she added, is part of the campaign’s goal.

The funding model recomended by the task force is income-based. A tax would be payable by those who could afford it, with an exemption for those who could not, based on tax liability.

“We found the majority of Delawareans would support $35 to $40 a year going toward clean water,” Goggin said.

They also looked at raising business license fees to $40, with the increase going directly toward the clean water fund.

Those two sources, they estimated, would bring in around $25 million annually. If the state bonds against those funds, it could produce an additional $10 to $15 million.

“That is a significant move forward in making that $100 million dent,” Goggin said. While the topic did come up of a “stop date,” one can’t be provided.

“Maintenance of existing infrastructure, construction of new infrastructure, removal of pollutants, flooding, and stormwater issues will continue for the foreseeable future, and [are] likely to get more expensive given market rates, wage rates and backlog of ‘needs,’” Goggin said. “Obviously we hope people become more educated on the water quality issues facing Delaware and how they can, on a daily basis, participate in activities that would directly improve our waterways.”

The task force and coalition together have helped produce House Bill 270, an act to amend the state code relating to clean water.

While the bill is currently tabled in committee, Goggin said there has been genuine consensus between lawmakers.

“We were successful this year in getting $30 million for clean water and conservation funding in the bond bill,” she said, with $10 million each going to open space, farmland preservation and clean water.

At the June rally in Dover, HB 270 cosponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend said despite many legislators and executive leaders’ insistence that they understand what’s at stake, and that they support clean water, they have ultimately failed to support funding it when they’ve had the opportunity.

“Many advocates and everyday families are finding that their catch-more-flies-with-honey approach has fallen short, and that we all might need to start using vinegar,” Townsend said. “Frankly, they’re right to be upset — my patience, too, is wearing thin. But we can’t, and won’t, give up.”

Undoing damage

Jordan said that he’s pleased with the strides made over the past few decades, despite the fact that more work is needed.

“The Red Clay was stocked with trout for the first time in decades this year – that’s a big step,” Jordan said. “It’s a long way from the days when you could tell what color paper the mills were producing by the color of the creek that day.”

Kauffman believes much of the damage done to the streams can be undone, and that data on the Brandywine from almost 50 years ago shows vast improvements.

“It shows water quality was really bad, and now it’s fishable and almost always swimmable,” he said. “River systems can recover – primarily if humans leave them alone and let nature do its course, and that’s happening.”

Having the federal government as a referee between states like Delaware and Pennsylvania in managing water improvement would also be beneficial, he added.

“We’re happy about work states are doing … but when you have two states working together, that’s when you need the government to step in,” he said.

For more on the Clean Water Delaware initiative, visit cleanwaterdelaware.org. For more on HB 270, visit legis.delaware.gov/BillDetail?legislationId=26158.