Commentary: Mispillion, Cedar Creek watersheds provide million-dollar boost to region


Putting dollar values on nature can be tricky. But a new economic study by the University of Maryland’s Environmental Finance Center aims to do just that. It found that Delaware’s Mispillion and Cedar Creek watersheds provide millions of dollars in annual benefits to residents and visitors to Slaughter Beach, Milford and surrounding areas.

The Mispillion and Cedar Creek watersheds are home to one of the last remaining large tracts of undisturbed natural resources in Delaware. They are part of an internationally recognized flyway for migrating birds, including the threatened red knot shorebird. They support one of the largest horseshoe crab spawning areas in the world and are the official symbol of Slaughter Beach, a certified wildlife habitat.

The vast marshland and open space in this region and the dune system on the Delaware Bay provide critical storm protection and absorb excess floodwaters at a time when the state is experiencing a rate of relative sea level rise that is twice the global average. The economic study, which was commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts in coordination with a new coalition called the Waterways Infrastructure and Investment Network (WIIN), examines the value of the area’s natural resources to outdoor recreation, along with ecotourism, history and the cultural aspects they bring to local communities.

The report estimates the value for leisure, wildlife viewing and outdoor recreation in the watershed at over several million dollars annually. These “environmental services” capture contributions to recreation, wellness and a community way of life that are not often included in economic studies. The report also examined individual attractions that were important to the community, including Milford’s Mispillion Riverwalk, the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, Slaughter Beach’s Marvel Saltmarsh Preserve Boardwalk and the DuPont Nature Center. For example, the report found that visitor activity at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center is valued at up to $6.3 million and that wildlife viewing in Slaughter Beach generates more than $1 million in benefits.

This type of assessment offers unique insight into the value of the watersheds that go beyond traditional economic indicators. By offering a more comprehensive view, WIIN aims to generate discussion and interest in the economic and environmental significance of this region relative to their larger coastal neighbors to the south, such as Rehoboth Beach and Lewes. There is a story to tell of generations benefiting from recreation, marine industry, habitat, wildlife and storm protection. But there is an even more important chapter to discover: What is the potential value that has yet to be maximized and how can we do it sustainably?

Thanks to a federal grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation’s National Coastal Resilience Fund, WIIN has embarked on an ambitious, two-year effort to characterize the value of the watersheds’ environmental services and then develop a nature-based investment strategy to boost economic opportunity, conservation and local resilience.

The economic study is a first step, to be followed by a second economic assessment that will examine the benefits and costs of investing in ecotourism and other activities, such as new wildlife viewing platforms, boating access and oyster aquaculture. In addition, WIIN will perform a vulnerability assessment to be led by the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. This work will assess community assets and natural resources that are likely to be exposed to sea level rise, flooding and changes in land use. The goal is to identify and prioritize at-risk resources and then engage members of the community to help plan investments that protect, restore or enhance these resources for future generations. The resulting nature-based investment strategy hopes to elevate and bolster this region’s future resilience.

The WIIN coalition sees vast potential for these watersheds. What began as an informal exchange of ideas in February 2020 quickly blossomed into a broad coalition comprised of members of the Resilient and Sustainable Communities League (RASCL), the city of Milford, the town of Slaughter Beach, Sussex County, Kent County and The Pew Charitable Trusts. RASCL is a network of organizations and state agencies working to improve the capacity of Delaware’s communities to thrive in the face of changing environmental conditions. RASCL members represented on WIIN are the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, Delaware Sea Grant, the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, the Delaware Nature Society and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

By working together, we brought additional capacity and expertise to the area, successfully competed for federal grant funding and created momentum for win-win solutions that embrace economic and environmental objectives. As COVID-19 restrictions ease, we plan to be out in the community to hear your ideas for improving the overall resilience of this region. We invite you to follow our progress on

Danielle Swallow is a coastal hazards specialist with Delaware Sea Grant, based at the University of Delaware, where she provides outreach and technical assistance to communities to build their resilience to weather and climate events. She is a member of the Waterways Infrastructure and Investment Network and a founding member of the Resilient and Sustainable Communities League, a network of professionals working to help Delaware communities thrive in the face of changing environmental conditions.

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