by Tamara Scully
The cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed has involved farmers in multiple states, where acreage such as that owed by the McMahon family, of E-Z Acres, in Homer, NY, feeds into the watershed. Several streams gather surface water, which is ultimately funneled into the Chesapeake Bay.
The McMahons recently received a 2018 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award for their extraordinary efforts to keep not only the far away bay, but the aquifers which sit under their land and provide drinking water to nearby communities, free from any degradation which could arise as a result of their farming activity.
There are opportunities for farmers within the Delaware River Watershed to improve water quality through stewardship, similar to the ongoing emphasis of Chesapeake Bay stewardship. And there is quite a bit of Federal funding available for a variety of conservation practices, aimed at enhancing water quality, for those in the targeted areas.
“We want to get people aware of the water quality in the Delaware River, kind of like what happened years ago in the Chesepeake Bay,” John Parke, Stewardship Project Director – North Region, New Jersey Audubon, said. “We have an amazing opportunity.”
That opportunity revolves around more than 50 organizations who have banded together under the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) program to assess and improve the water quality in the Delaware River. The initiative spans four states — Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — all of whom contain land within this vast watershed, which provides drinking water to millions of people.
With such an expansive territory, and so many organizations involved, the DRWI project partners have identified eight sub-watersheds within the larger region on which to focus their initial work. Lead by the William Penn Foundation, whose annual 30 million dollar per year investment supports watershed-wide research and advocacy, organizations such as The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, New Jersey Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and the Open Space Institute are working individually, yet in conjunction, to meet water quality goals.
Each organizational partner has access to funding to implement practices which promote their own organization’s mission, as well as the overriding mission of the DRWI. Each group is working within one or more of the eight sub-watersheds, with oversight on the projects they are spearheading. For example, New Jersey Audubon is one of 12 organizations working within the New Jersey Highlands regions, focusing on the Upper Paulins Kill, Upper Musconetcong, Lower Musconetcong and Lopatcong Creek sub-watershed zones.
As per the DRWI website, the groups are focusing on working with all segments of the population, from rural to urban, “to protect forests and farms, clean up streams, and make our cities and suburbs greener. From the New Jersey Highlands to the Pine Barrens, Pennsylvania farm country to Philadelphia and the bay, the Delaware River Watershed Initiative is bringing people together to ensure swimmable, fishable, drinkable water for years to come.”
Farmer funding
Because farming practices can have significant impacts on water quality, as well as on other environmental parameters such as soil health, biodiversity, species habitat and air quality, and large swaths of land are important to preserve, farmers are often the first tier of protection — and therefore the target of conservation initiatives — which can positively impact the watershed. Engaging farmers, both large and small, and assisting them with incorporating stewardship practices profitably is one piece of the DRWI partners work.
“If you lose the farmer, well you just lost the biggest ally in how you’re going to keep systems healthy,” Parke said. “In order to be successful in conservation goals, you have to rely on agriculture.”
One area of farming focus is grazing. Prescribed rotational grazing, where the animals are carefully rotated through pasture with the dual goals of providing optimal pasture nutrition while also enhancing soil health, biodiversity, and the ability of pastureland to filter groundwater, prevent erosion and capture carbon, is a powerful tool in watershed restoration.
“Where good grazing is practiced, all those other ecosystem services go back into play,” Parke explains. “Land degradation is halted, additional soil fertility is gained, runoff is eliminated, soil tilth is enhanced, increased habitat for pollinators occurs, birds — many of which are insectivores — return.”
Other practices such as planting cover crops, properly managing manure storage, applying manure based on the land and crops’ needs, and maintaining riparian buffer zones are some other examples of conservation practices which safeguard water resources.
Federal funding is being distributed via the DRWI organizations via their outreach efforts in targeted zones. While this funding may replicate similar conservation programs, such as those available through National Resources Conservation Service, the funds are not as encumbered, as the DRWI member organizations have discretion on disbursement.
In some cases, “you may be able to try these practices without restrictions, the expense, or the regulations” sometimes associated with other funding programs, Parke said.
One example of New Jersey Audubon’s outreach via the DRWI is the planting of over one mile of riparian buffers in the Musconetcong and Paulins Kill sub-watersheds. The goal of these projects is to benefit water quality, soil health and floodplain function, while enhancing habitats for bird and aquatic species, including threatened and endangered ones such as the wood turtle.
In addition to free plant material for those who meet eligibility requirements, there is trained labor available, also funded via the DRWI, to assist in the riparian buffer planting and other conservation projects, thus eliminating the need for farmers to hire labor or find time to do the work themselves.
An important part of the DRWI is the monitoring of water quality and the assessment of the various practices being implemented to ascertain their overall impact. Through strategic planning and the cooperation of the numerous organizational partners involved across the four states, the DRWI aims to be a significant factor in restoration of the Delaware Bay, and to document and monitor the progress of the conservation practices being implemented.
New Jersey Audubon and the other DRWI partners are hoping to spread the word about the available funding for water-friendly conservation practices in targeted areas. These funds will be available to qualifying municipalities, community organizations, landowners and farmers who wish to implement a variety of watershed enhancing conservation initiatives.
Farmers are often the first and last line of defense when protection of our watersheds is at stake, and farmer participation is needed to successfully improve water quality in the Delaware Bay by 2024, the DRWI’s stated goal. Though the combined work of all partners, the DRWI aims to aggregate the momentum and mission of partner organizations to achieve an amplified impact, which will ultimately form the footprint for replicating the work done in the sub-watersheds throughout the Delaware River Basin.
“There is a ton of opportunity for a lot of agricultural initiatives. Cover crops, buffers and more are funding initiatives, and all are available for no cost to farmers in the targeted sub-watersheds. So much funding options are being rolled out for this initiative,” Parke emphasizes.
For further information on the DRWI, including referrals to other organizations involved in the project, please contact New Jersey Audubon Stewardship Project Director, John Parke at