Known to many for George Washington’s famous crossing, the Delaware transcends history as a river of tremendous biological, economic and cultural significance. Originating from clear, cold headwater streams in the Catskill Mountains, it flows for more than 400 miles through the sweeping beauty of the Water Gap, beneath the bridge spans of Colonial-era river towns, and through the urban corridors of Trenton and Philadelphia before finally reaching Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Along the way, the Delaware provides clean water for drinking, industry and agriculture for nearly 20 million people, including residents of New York City and Philadelphia. Coastal communities rely on the river to support sport and commercial fishing for striped bass, shad and oysters. River towns also draw revenue from the Delaware, including from anglers, kayakers and other tourists who visit to enjoy the area’s scenic beauty and array of outdoor recreational opportunities.
Sharing the river with people are wild sturgeon, eel and other wide-ranging freshwater species. Bobcat, bear and other mammals roam throughout this watershed that also contains an important segment of the Atlantic flyway, hosting more than 200 species of birds who spend part of their life cycle here. The Delaware River estuary provides spawning grounds for horseshoe crabs and hosts one of the most critical stopover points for migrating shorebirds in the western hemisphere.
Mighty But Not Invincible
The Delaware River is an irreplaceable source of clean water, which is essential to all life. Historically, these waters—constituting the longest free flowing mainstem river located east of the Mississippi— were protected by forestlands located at its headwaters and throughout the watershed. However, increasing development has resulted in fewer, intact floodplain forests to slow the course of seasonal rains and absorb the impact of storms—leaving homes and businesses vulnerable to flooding and compromised water supplies.
Alterations in ways the water moves also place demands on the quality and security of this valuable resource. In spite of being the longest free flowing mainstem river east of the Mississippi, fish populations, including migratory shad, eel and sturgeon are at historic lows in the Delaware basin due to a legacy of pollution, overfishing and the establishment of dams on the river’s tributaries.
Scenic lands located along the river have become coveted for development that sends nutrients and pollution into the river that provides drinking water to the cities of Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington, Dover and other places downstream. Freshwater supplies are also threatened by increased salinity moving inland from the bay as a result of rising seas caused by climate change.
In a nutshell, human demands for water are compromising the Delaware River’s ability to provide vital services to people and nature. In response, The Nature Conservancy is:
- Protecting forests, floodplains and wetlands that are essential for providing clean water and wildlife habitat.
- Restoring floodplains and riverine wetlands to improve water quality and reduce the impacts of floods.
- Advancing innovative water management approaches that ensure there is enough water available at the right times to support the needs of people and our rivers.
Through effective partnerships, strong science and persistent advocacy, The Nature Conservancy is working to protect, manage and restore the lands and waters of the Delaware River Basin. These efforts to a long way in ensuring the river remains a healthy, abundant source of life-sustaining water for people and nature.