Guest Commentary: Focus on urban rivers benefits environment, communities

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Jennifer Adkins is the executive director of the Delaware Nature Society. This was first published in Estuary News, a publication of Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

Decades of industrial pollution in and around Wilmington’s rivers and creeks left a legacy of chemicals in soils and water. Many years later, through cleanup and development, the area around the Wilmington Riverfront has come back to life with places to live, work, shop and dine. But what about the water itself? What would it take to bring the Christina and Brandywine rivers (or Creek) back to life with more fish and wildlife, swimming and recreation?

Breathing life back into these waters is the aim of the Christina-Brandywine River Remediation Restoration Resilience (CBR4) project. This is no small feat, given the extent of pollution, the limited remaining natural areas and restoration opportunities, and the complexity and costs involved.

For the communities living along the rivers and the millions more who visit and rely on clean water from these waterways, the work is imperative. Fortunately, with cleanup of the land advancing, water quality improving and new technologies for remediation and restoration developing, what CBR4 envisions is possible.

In 2020, a group of people from different environmental organizations and agencies devised a way to turn the project’s concept into a plan with two linked efforts. One effort was a feasibility assessment for remediating contamination from the rivers with support from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. The second effort involved restoration planning for the Christina and Brandywine area with support from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant. The group secured funding and formed a project team that originally included American Rivers; BrightFields Inc. Environmental Services, a private environmental consulting group based in Wilmington; the Christina Conservancy; DNREC; the Delaware Nature Society; the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary; and Sarver Ecological. The original group has since added members such as the planning and engineering firm RK&K.

Through 2022, CBR4 members will outline their vision and goals with the strategies and projects but need to achieve them. Work started last year, and the first step was to establish baseline data and mapping for the project area — 4,000 acres along and including the rivers in northeast Wilmington. The acreage extends into eastern Wilmington, around the 7th Street Peninsula, Southbridge and the Wilmington Riverfront, and outside city limits into Banning Park, the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge and a wetland complex under the Interstate 95/495 exchange.

Thanks to this baseline, the group knows there are well over 1,000 acres of rare freshwater tidal wetlands in the project area, that 60% of shorelines are in a somewhat natural state, and 70% of areas within 100 feet of streams are undeveloped. It also identified 700 acres of low-lying nearshore areas that are undeveloped and 1,400 linear feet of streamside areas accessible to the public. Information like this is crucial for assessing river and habitat health and community resilience, and the strategies and projects to improve them.

In the past few months, the group collected input about the area from local communities and cleanup volunteers using a simple survey. Based on responses from 100 people, the top river-oriented activity in which people like to engage is walking, and the biggest needs people see for action are chemical and trash abatement and wetlands revitalization. In addition, the group identified and mapped a variety of access types and locations based on what people indicated they wanted to see, such as boating access and walking areas with water views.

The next and final phase, currently underway, is to develop projects that best address the needs and opportunities identified by all data collected so far. These projects, along with updated strategies and goals, will be presented in a stakeholder workshop this December and other meetings for fine-tuning. The result will be a comprehensive vision and plan for Wilmington’s rivers, with fundable, shovel-ready projects.

For more information about CBR4, including links to fact sheets and webinars, visit christinaconservancy.org/cbr4 or dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/cbr4.

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