The Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware.
Christina River The Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware. © John Hinkson/TNC

The Nature Conservancy in Delaware

Brandywine-Christina Revolving Water Fund

This innovative conservation finance and governance mechanism is the nation’s first revolving water fund.

What is a Water Fund?

During the past four years, under a grant from the William Penn Foundation as part of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, The Nature Conservancy has worked with the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center and other partners to develop the Brandywine-Christina Revolving Water Fund (the “Water Fund”). A water fund is a finance and governance mechanism for downstream beneficiaries to invest in upstream conservation practices designed to secure freshwater resources—both in terms of water quality and quantity—for people and nature, far into the future.

The ecologically and culturally rich Brandywine-Christina watershed is comprised of the Brandywine, Red Clay and White Clay Creeks, and the Christina River—which collectively provide more than 100 million gallons of drinking water per day to over half a million people in Delaware and Pennsylvania. Legacy pollutants, nutrient and sediment overloads, and urban runoff have rendered a majority of creeks and streams in this watershed unsafe for swimming and fishing, let alone drinking. By facilitating large-scale public and private investment, the Water Fund is designed to dramatically increase the pace, scale and efficiency of water-quality conservation in the Brandywine-Christina watershed.

Volunteers clean up trash during a Stream Stewards Spring Watershed Cleanup at First State National Historical Park’s Beaver Valley unit.
Volunteer Cleanup Volunteers clean up trash during a Stream Stewards Spring Watershed Cleanup at First State National Historical Park’s Beaver Valley unit. © John Hinkson/TNC

Agricultural Practices for Clean Water

In addition to William Penn Foundation funding, i2 Capital, an investment firm specializing in conservation finance, secured a two-year US Department of Agriculture Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) to bring impact investment capital to the Water Fund. The Water Fund aims to push regulatory-driven municipal stormwater and drinking water utility investments toward agricultural restoration projects and to create marketable “Environmental Impact Units,” which can be sold to generate revenue for more conservation and create a self-sustaining, revolving fund structure. Scientific data have shown that relatively simple conservation projects on agricultural lands at the headwaters typically have the highest return on investment for those downstream. By keeping soils and nutrients on fields and livestock out of waterways, farmers can improve water quality throughout the watershed. The same agricultural practices can also help municipalities meet their obligations under the Clean Water Act and reduce the cost of producing drinking water in the more populated portions of the watershed.

Common agricultural practices include planting cover crops on fields in the off season, building manure-retention facilities and fencing off stream segments. Keeping animals out of streams also reduces stream bank erosion, allowing vegetation and trees to grow, shading the streams and providing improved fish and wildlife habitat. Another effective way to improve water quality is to plant trees and plants along streambanks that are not forested. These “riparian buffers” filter sediment and excess nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) which can run off agricultural lands into streams, increasing the cost of water filtration downstream. Conservation based agricultural practices not only improve livestock and soil health, they also tend to provide a more cost-effective means of improving water quality than downstream interventions (i.e., filtration/purification methods).

Two acres of trees were planted to buffer a headwater stream and reduce sediment and nutrients entering White Clay Creek—protecting drinking water for the City of Newark, DE.
Hutchinson Farm Two acres of trees were planted to buffer a headwater stream and reduce sediment and nutrients entering White Clay Creek—protecting drinking water for the City of Newark, DE. © Jennifer Egan

Pilot Project: Hutchinson Farm

The Water Fund completed its first pilot project with the City of Newark, Delaware in June 2018. Newark contributed $20,000 from its 2017 municipal budget for source water protection. The Water Fund provided an additional $10,000 utilizing a grant from the DuPont Company. The Hutchison farm near Landenberg, Pennsylvania implemented several conservation practices to protect the headwaters stream that transects the farm. That stream feeds into White Clay Creek which is the source of drinking water for the City of Newark.

The completion of the pilot project moves the Brandywine-Christina Revolving Water Fund from theory to reality, making it the 30th active water fund that The Nature Conservancy has helped develop world-wide. A cleaner, healthier Brandywine-Christina watershed is possible, and we thank you for your support along the way as we work toward the goal of swimmable, fishable waterways throughout the region we call home.    

The Brandywine Creek is the sole source of drinking water for Wilmington, Delaware’s largest city.
Brandywine Creek The Brandywine Creek is the sole source of drinking water for Wilmington, Delaware’s largest city. © John Hinkson/TNC