Whether you were listening for the melodious, flute-like songs of the wood thrush in the upland forests of the Kittatinny Ridge and Appalachian Highlands, or scouting for the stocky, salmon-orange colored red knot along the Delaware Bayshore, many people found solace in hearing birdsong and watching birds during a difficult year. Seeing birds carry on as usual offered a sense of hope for people of all ages and a renewed appreciation for the natural world all around us.
With more than 13,500 square miles of land and forests, and over 2,000 tributary rivers and streams, the Delaware River Watershed offers homes, food, and water for more than 400 bird species, which communities in our watershed looked to for peace in troubling times.
You don’t have to look far to find bird life in the Delaware River Watershed. Our watershed boasts the largest and most important inland bald eagle wintering habitat in the northeastern United States. A few short decades ago it would have been rare to spot a bald eagle in Delaware, but populations have rebounded throughout the watershed. However, the long-term success of this iconic bird’s recovery still faces challenges from various threats, including a loss of habitat in the region. Our watershed is also home to the second-largest population of migrating songbirds and raptors as well as the second-largest concentration of shorebirds in North America – and is one of the four most important shorebird-migration sites in the world. These shorebirds include the federally protected red knot that relies on the horseshoe crab eggs that line the coasts of the Delaware Bay for food and fuel along their 9,000-mile migration journey. In short, birds of all kinds need the Delaware River Watershed and rely on it for quality clean water and a healthy ecosystem, just as people in our region do.
As one of America’s iconic waterways, the watershed of the Delaware River supplies more than 13.3 million people with clean, reliable drinking water and supports a water-based economy of over $21 billion dollars annually, from recreation, water supply, hunting and fishing, ecotourism, forestry, agriculture, open space and port benefits, and supports 600,000 jobs.
Unfortunately, our shared water resources face threats from excessive nutrients, emerging contaminants, increasing development, changes in stream flows, rising sea levels and intruding salt water into drinking water supplies, all of which are exacerbated by the increasing tide of climate change. These issues threaten not only water quality but also habitat throughout the Delaware River Watershed and paint an uncertain future for the birds, communities and businesses across Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.
Yet today, federal support for managing and restoring our Delaware River Watershed is less than one-fifth of the investment that flows to our neighboring Chesapeake Bay, on a per-person basis. This must change if we are to meet the watershed’s present and future needs.
The good news is that we have a window of opportunity to conserve Our Shared Waters for decades to come! The watershed states and federal government, working through the DRBC, agencies, and programs, have vastly improved water quality in the watershed over the past sixty years. And the Commission has the expertise to meet future challenges to water quality and supply, but only if federal funding is restored.
In a hopeful sign, members of Congress recently formed a caucus to champion the Delaware River Watershed. As this bipartisan group of champions, led by Reps. Antonio Delgado (NY-19) and Brian K. Fitzpatrick (PA-1), creates a shared identity and grows its own focus on issues here in the watershed, it can give voice to the needs of Our Shared Waters. We applaud this milestone and look forward to working with the caucus to protect and restore the watershed.
The Delaware River Watershed is a beautiful landscape, filled with diverse habitat where countless birds and wildlife thrive and where millions of people in communities and businesses flourish. With sufficient investment, we can maintain and protect our shared resources for today and for future generations.
Elizabeth Koniers Brown is the director of Audubon’s Delaware River Watershed Program and serves on the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and the Monitoring Advisory and Coordination Committee of the Delaware River Basin Commission. Originally published by the Delaware River Basin Commission “Our Shared Waters” blog.