CAPE MAY — Rodale Institute’s Diana Martin traveled from her company headquarters in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, to be part of the sixth annual Delaware River Watershed Forum on Tuesday.
Best known for promoting organic farming practices, Rodale helps farmers improve soil health and stop using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, Martin said.
Covering about 14,000 square miles of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York, the Delaware watershed is the source of drinking water for more than 15 million people, including those in New York City and Philadelphia.
Protecting it from pollution is essential to keeping communities here healthy, according to the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed.
As part of that focus, the coalition’s 131-member organizations work together to create a healthier watershed, to improve the physical and economic well being of communities there.
“It’s a new focus for us,” said Martin of recently joining the coalition.
Previously, Rodale stayed more with agricultural initiatives, but the group has realized it has a lot in common with water-quality advocates, wildlife groups and others working to improve the health of the watershed.
A watershed is a term for the area that drains into a particular river through tributaries and other smaller bodies.
“There are 15,000 farms in the watershed. It’s the biggest land use,” Martin said.
Agricultural runoff from conventional farming practices is a leading source of pollution there, she said.
Organic practices such as crop rotation and cover crop planting can greatly improve water quality, as can the use of other techniques to reduce or eliminate pesticide and herbicide use.
And those practices hold onto soil and water better, resulting in less runoff into streams that find their way to the Delaware, Martin said.
Everyone benefits from cleaner water, said New Jersey Audubon President and CEO Eric Stiles.
“People have broad interests here. They vary by geography, membership and age, but one thing we have in common is a shared vision and shared values,” said Stiles. “Swimmable rivers, healthy fish and wildlife for all, and clean drinking water for all — these are, in essence, what we are pursuing.”
Coalition Director Sandra Meola said about 250 people are at The Grand Hotel for the two-day seminar, which continues Wednesday.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber, who oversees 59,000 acres of National Wildlife Refuge lands in 13 states, moderated the first plenary session and stressed the need to include private landowners in conservation efforts.
“In the East, nine of every 10 acres are in private hands,” said Weber. “Without strong coordination, we wouldn’t get conservation done.”
She said it’s particularly important to work together in a large landscape like the watershed.
Coastal resiliency is a major issue for his state now, said Shawn Garvin, the Delaware Secretary of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. He and Delware Gov. John Carney recently met with bayshore communities about flooding and related issues, and found some resistance to acknowledging climate change as a cause.
“Particularly in Delaware — the lowest state in the nation — we are seeing and feeling it right away,” Garvin said. “We have to recognize the fact that the climate is changing, sea level is rising, we have warmer waters and greater frequency of storms, and more severe weather is having almost daily impacts on our communities.”
He said Delaware is looking at investing in wetlands, buffers, water quality control and resilient infrastructure.
“It will have a long-lasting impact on the survival of the state of Delaware,” Garvin said.
New Jersey Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection Debbie Mans said the state has a lot of catching up to do, referring to the eight years of inaction on climate and sea-level rise under Gov. Chris Christie. She said the DEP will be ramping up communication with and between coastal communities on planning for sea-level rise in the near future.
“We have to think more about what is the cost of not doing anything,” Mans said. “There’s a cost to not addressing climate change, not making sure the water infrastructure is doing the best it can.”