Delaware River Watershed Initiative Could Slow Region’s Recovery From COVID-19 Lockdown

By Bonner R. Cohen
Bonner R. Cohen
Bonner R. Cohen
Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, where he concentrates on energy, natural resources, and international relations.
April 27, 2020Updated: April 30, 2020


Government-led efforts to suppress the CCP virus through a nationwide lockdown have had the predictable consequence of bringing the previously booming U.S. economy to a screeching halt.

Sudden and widespread unemployment (30 million and rising), collapsing demand for commodities, and supply chain interruptions are just a few of the challenges facing businesses, large and small alike.

As the Trump administration and governors ponder when and how to reopen the country, businesses, manufacturers, retailers, farmers, meat processors, service providers, and others must figure out how to get back on their feet in a post-COVID-19 world. While each sector and region will have its own unique challenges, the road to recovery in one area of the country may be much rockier because of a well-funded regionwide environmental initiative designed to restructure the economic foundations of the Delaware River watershed.

Home to more than 15 million people in parts of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, the 13,500-square-mile watershed is composed of its namesake river and its tributaries, the Delaware Bay, and other bodies of water, along with the adjacent land.

Adoption of Green Infrastructure

Even before the outbreak of the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, businesses in the region were chafing under the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI). Launched in 2014 by the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation, the DRWI is spearheaded by organizations funded by the foundation to “accelerate the protection of important landscapes, restoration of degraded areas, and adoption of green infrastructure and responsible farming practices.”

By its own account, William Penn disburses $30 million a year to more than 50 organizations in the four-state area, including such groups as the Open Space Institute, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Institute for Conservation Leadership, Audubon Pennsylvania, Brandywine Conservancy, Brandywine Red Clay Alliance, Chester County (Pennsylvania) Water Resources Authority, Delaware Highlands, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, School of Environmental Design Pennsylvania University, the Nature Conservancy, and the Trust for Public Lands.

Noting that the Delaware River watershed’s land-use regulations are determined by myriad state and local jurisdictions, the William Penn Foundation seeks to overcome this fragmentation by adopting a “watershed-wide conservation strategy.” Its focus is on the land-use activities of thousands of landowners, developers, and farmers as they affect water quality, commonly referred to as nonpoint source pollution.

“As a private funder unconstrained by geographic or political boundaries, we can be nimble and strategic in applying our funding while considering the needs of the basin as a complete system,” William Penn says on its website. The foundation has put more than $100 million into the DRWI, and its activities haven’t gone unnoticed.

Lucrative Real Estate Deals

“The DRWI involves some legitimate activities, such as rehabilitating streams and measures to enhance flood control,” says Tom Shepstone, president of SMC Inc., a Pennsylvania-based planning and management company. “But behind this façade, the Penn Foundation is laying the groundwork to buy as much land as possible through groups such as the Open Space Institute. OSI and its various affiliates buy land on the cheap, have it appraised high, and then either sell it or donate it to states or to related land trusts, pocketing significant profits that allow them to create government-funded preserves around their private estates.

“They have a direct interest in anything that raises the price of land they employ in these scams. Natural gas development, for this reason, is a huge threat.”

Noting that the Penn Foundation actively opposes oil and gas development in the region, as do the DRWI groups it funds, Shepstone says he finds it particularly egregious that the foundation simultaneously funds both the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Delaware River Basin Commission, which are on opposite sides in a lawsuit involving natural-gas development.

The Penn Foundation’s financial support for the DRWI is augmented by its donations to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC). Dating to 1961 legislation signed by President John F. Kennedy, the DRBC is a compact among the same four states for the purpose of managing water quality in the Delaware Basin.

All four of the commission’s state governors serve as members along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In December 2019, the commission, expanding its efforts to steer regulatory policy throughout the region, announced the creation of an advisory committee on climate change. That year, it received a $530,000 donation from the Penn Foundation, the most recent of several such donations over the past decade, according to Big Green Inc., a grant-tracking database operated by the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research.

This step follows the DRBC’s 2010 moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wayne and Pike counties, which sit atop the natural-gas-rich Marcellus Shale. The moratorium is now being challenged in court by the Wayne Land and Mineral Group LLC.

Rural counties in the watershed, caught between the land-use policies pursued by the DRWI and the regulatory burdens imposed by the DRBC, were already suffering from outmigration before the pandemic struck. Delaware County, New York, for example, has seen its population decrease 8 percent between 2010, according to census estimate released in late March.

Adjacent counties in the watershed, such as Ulster and Sullivan in New York and Greene and Wayne in Pennsylvania, have undergone similar declines over the past decade. While other rural areas in the country are facing population loss, the situation in the Delaware River watershed, with its unfriendly business climate, appears to be particularly acute.

“Environmental protections are essential to ensuring Pennsylvania’s natural resources and beauty are available to future generations,” notes Tirzah Duren, a policy analyst at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Foundation. “However,” she cautions, “those protections should not choke of the availability of homes and jobs to local residents.”

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, where he concentrates on energy, natural resources, and international relations.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.