Enhancing Policy and Engagement in the Delaware Basin

The Delaware River flows through four states–New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware–before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, the water policies developed by each of those states, as well as by the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), have an impact on the river’s health and its ability to support sensitive uses like fishing, swimming, and drinking in each and every downstream town and city. The cumulative impacts of water quality threats–including land uses that cause nonpoint source pollution; wastewater and stormwater pollution; and loss of forests, wetlands, and streamside buffer zones–are evident in the degraded health of the river. Public engagement in water quality policy is an effective tool in ensuring these threats are recognized and that action is taken to protect our river and streams.

Throughout the Delaware River Basin, River Network, with support from the William Penn Foundation, focuses on:

  • Increasing the understanding and application of policies
  • Promoting civic engagement and policy change
  • Improving data management and visualization

We work closely with groups throughout the basin to help build capacity of staff and volunteers in each of these areas through presentations, trainings, resource sharing, and one-on-one support. The Delaware River Basin is fortunate to have so many impactful and passionate people working for the health and safety of its river and streams. River Network works to promote collaboration among basin groups to catalyze effective policy changes and community science to benefit water quality.

Increasing Policy Understanding & Application

Connecting the Clean Water Act to Recreation

In the 1970s, the Clean Water Act (CWA) assigned every state and US territory a responsibility to identify and “designate” the uses and intended uses of all the water bodies within their jurisdiction. “Uses” include categories like swimming, fishing, and drinking. The designations dictate the levels of pollution permitted upstream and informs which activities are allowed on the banks. Beginning with this foundational step of the CWA, states began a process toward today’s cleanup successes, increasing recreation opportunities like swimming and boating for many urban rivers. Each state varies in its approach to applying the CWA, providing an important opportunity for groups to check in on what their state is doing and advocate for improvements.

As part of an effort to focus on fishable and swimmable waters, River Network developed an interactive story map to illustrate “designated” waters for swimming and aquatic life in the basin states of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The goal of our story map is to translate regulatory details into information that organizations can use in their water quality work. This map can help you understand whether the water quality is adequate for various recreational uses including swimming, boating, or wading to ensure the health of those participating.

Read more about the map on our blog and explore the full map here.

Local Leaders: Putting Data to Action

River Network is working with several watershed and community groups that are collecting data and information about watersheds within the basin and converting findings into action. Because they live and work in their watersheds every day, their local perspective is valuable in the protection and restoration of the health and uses of the waters and should inform management of these waterways.

Bartram’s Garden: Water Quality Monitoring to Inform Regulations

Photograph by Alan Brian Nilsen.

Bartram’s Garden hosts a community boating program at their southwest Philadelphia location. Under the guidance of Chloe Wang (pictured here) and Joanne Douglas, volunteers and high school interns collect bacterial counts and other data to better understand the risks to boaters in the Lower Schuylkill River. Read about how they put their data to action here.

Musconetcong Watershed Association: Data Dashboards

Photo courtesy Musconetcong Watershed Association.

Nancy Lawler (pictured here) and the Musconetcong Watershed Association, through one-on-one trainings with River Network, have created data dashboards to better display their data to the public. Read about how we approach data management and visualization, and check out Nancy’s dashboard here.

Promoting Civic Engagement & Policy Change

River Network performed a basin-wide comparative analysis of a number of Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act tools, policies and programs in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, specifically as they relate to the Delaware River Basin. Our charge was to identify gaps and opportunities for stronger and more effective water programs. Our high-level review indicated low public involvement by individuals and organizations in the available public comment processes, emphasizing a need for groups like River Network to identify public engagement opportunities in the water quality regulatory process and to train and support those seeking to participate in them.

There is much more work to do and River Network hopes its findings will catalyze discussion, increase coordination, and lead to seized opportunities that can improve health of the watershed. Read the full report here.

Bartram’s Garden: Water Quality Monitoring to Inform Regulations

Four volunteers in life vests sitting on a dock with white boats nearby

Photo courtesy Bartram’s Garden

In addition to supporting public boating and fishing programs, Bartram’s Garden Community Boathouse volunteers and high school River Interns conduct water quality monitoring on the Lower Schuylkill River. The Lower Schuylkill River is a tributary to the Delaware River and is currently designated for secondary contact recreation (activities like boating and fishing). However, with public kayaking programs, the risk of direct water contact is fairly high which elevates the existing recreational use category up to primary (activities where the risk of water consumption is high, such as swimming) – triggering greater protections. Bartram’s main concern is the safety of their boaters. They have deployed a water quality monitoring program that collects bacterial counts to assess when the water is “swimmable” following rain events and the resulting combined sewer overflows, which frequently cause them to cancel programming.

River Network, in partnership and coordination with PennFuture, developed and delivered policy trainings to Bartram’s Garden staff and data-to-action training for the volunteer monitors. Given the secondary recreational use designation and the existing primary use, Bartram’s could put their data to good use by sending it to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to help inform their regulations. River Network and PennFuture supported the submittal of Bartram’s Garden data, analysis and supporting materials to DRBC and PA DEP for their review and consideration.

Improving Data Management & Visualization

Volunteer monitoring programs educate and engage the public, while collecting meaningful data that can be used to inform the state of the watershed. River Network supports groups throughout the Delaware River Basin in data management and visualization – moving beyond data collection and focusing on analysis and visualization to eventually share and communicate the data in ways that can inform policy, outreach, and future planning.

For more information on River Network’s science and monitoring programs, check out our webpage here.

Supporting groups in data visualization and science communication must start with data management. On the ground, data often looks very different from one group to another. Each monitoring program has its own history of places, people, parameters, and protocols, but modern data visualization usually requires that the data be structured in a certain way. River Network helps groups navigate that migration, from existing data (in whatever shape it may be) to organized documented data.

To help groups adopt and use these tools, we try to follow these basic three objectives in co-developing data solutions:

  1. No- or low-cost, publicly available platforms and technologies
  2. No coding required: we deploy modern front-end tools designed for beginners
  3. No- or low-maintenance and easy to update with new data

Musconetcong Watershed Association: Data Dashboards

River Network worked with Musconetcong Watershed Association (MWA) to organize their existing data sets and display them for the public using Google Data Studio. The example dashboard we created shows a summer sampling season of bacteria data for the MWA:

Additional Resources