Restoration Management Support for Delaware River Watershed Initiative

January 10, 2023
Restoration Management Support for Delaware River Watershed Initiative

We’ve long said at The Commons that our technology cannot solve environmental problems, but our systems can help our partners make strides in reaching their goals. Our long-standing partnership with the Delaware River Watershed Initiative exemplifies how tools put in the hands of effective administrators can give us all hope for moving the needle toward a cleaner, more sustainable relationship with the natural world.

Introducing the Delaware Watershed Initiative

The Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) is a multi-state, multi-stakeholder initiative that’s focused on the improvement of water quality across the Delaware River Basin by conserving and restoring the streams and rivers throughout the watershed. 

The principal funder of the project is the William Penn Foundation, which provided an initial $100 million investment into the Delaware River Basin. William Penn’s generous investment aims to create long-term conditions that will ensure the watershed supports aquatic life and recreation in and on the water. Their funding underwrites the efforts to secure concentrated forest protection, expand agricultural restoration, and implement stormwater solutions that maintain and improve stream health in targeted sub-watersheds. 

DRWI encourages scientifically-sound data to drive decision-making. Since 2012, Drexel and the Academy of Natural Sciences have supported and facilitated the boots-on-the-ground work for close to 60 organizations, ranging from conservation groups to land trusts and watershed organizations established from Delaware Bay up through the Poconos. Together, this leadership works to generate the science, actuate the science, and inform conservation investments.

Map of Delaware River Watershed; Credit: Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Where is the Delaware Watershed?

The Delaware River is the largest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi. Watershed headwaters flow from the Poconos in Pennsylvania into the Atlantic Ocean via the Delaware Bay. People flock to its waters to enjoy countless outdoor recreation opportunities including fishing, birding, and boating. But the River and its headwaters provide more than amusement, the landscape sustains orchards, wineries, dairy farms, and countless communities. Millions of people pull their drinking water from the River. 

Waterways across the US have suffered under constant threats from expanding development and the Delaware River watershed is no exception. However, laws and landowners across the region have made significant progress in remediating and mitigating the pressures that development put on water resources. Recognizing that clean waterways and a healthy watershed lead to vibrant communities inspired this collaborative effort to restore impaired portions of the watershed.

The investments of the William Penn Foundation and leadership from Drexel help to coordinate the dedicated organizations willing to invest in restoring the ecosystem services necessary to keep the waters clean and flowing. 

Because there is a vast landscape on which to target conservation investments, the leadership made a systematic process to inform investment decisions. First, they identified key stressors: forest fragmentation and loss, agricultural runoff, as well as both stormwater and aquifer depletion. Then, they conducted an evaluation of the stressors at the HUC-12, or local sub-watershed, scale. In total, 400 units were studied and assessed by the Drexel team. The results identified a series of sub-watersheds prioritized for conservation-restoration investments that would have a meaningful and measurable impact on restoring or protecting water quality. The resulting eight clusters are now targeted for the implementation of best management restoration practices and land preservation.

The overall goal for DRWI is to generate or get watersheds that provide high quality and sufficient water quality for healthy ecosystems and human communities. Achieving that goal requires DRWI leadership to create a specific path of investment in activities that can both independently and in coordination shift the direction of water quality management across the watershed. 

What counts as a priority area?

It’s easier said than done to identify priorities - especially when taking into consideration factors as wide ranging as ecosystem services, economic development, and cost efficiencies. DRWI leadership first had to determine their watershed-wide goals. The leadership agreed to find and invest in the “biggest bang for their buck” projects, gauge the level of urgency to act in different regions, triage development pressures, and factor in the geographical influence on the greater watershed. The analysis required them to ask who was capable of doing the necessary work and where the work would happen. Finally, costs to conduct the work were calculated to estimate the feasibility. In determining priorities for investment the DRWI leadership also forecasted the viability of setting up an assessment structure via monitoring opportunities to review the impact and progress toward goals post-investment. For some locales, in situ monitoring could provide feedback information; whereas, at other project sites, they recognized that a watershed model would provide the best context as to the intended impact of an activity.

The eight sub-watershed clusters. Image credit: Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Marking a pathway to improved watershed health

A lot of fundamental planning work went into building the DWRI before a single shovel moved dirt on a project. This focus on form and function and provided DRWI with a pathway to the goal to achieve watershed outcomes. 

In Phase One of this Initiative, leadership focused on setting foundations, building relationships, establishing monitoring programs, and investing in watershed tools and models. Continued success, leadership agree, will require buy-in and collaboration across all participating entities. The sixty-plus organizations involved in the initiative have agreed to embrace collaboration, recognize strategic conservation goals, push information through sound science, and utilize strategies that maximize impact.

What will these partners undertake? Collectively, their activities will pursue improved ecological outcomes. Their activities will change what scientists and managers expect to see in biotas, water quality and quantity, and communities themselves. Identifying and measuring these changes will track progress towards water-shed wide goals.

How does the DRWI make strategic investments?

DRWI’s work with The Commons is seeded in targeting priorities to maximize impact and getting hands and heads wrapped around possible water quality improvement efforts. As the project progresses beyond Phase 1, DRWI has honed its prioritization process by delineating focus areas within the sub-watersheds of interest. The goal continues to be meaningful water quality change. The model of collaborative engagement coupled with reliance on sound science continues to drive the strategic investment of the initiative.

Starting in 2017, Drexel and ANS began looking to refine and integrate watershed models into their strategic decision-making process. They made a substantial investment into the Wiki-Watershed Model My Watershed platform and the Stream Reach Assessment Tool. With these models, decision-makers can get the information they wanted at a higher resolution beyond the limitations of HUC-12 boundaries. The outputs of these models allowed decision-makers to visualize both small drainage areas and how those drainage areas affect specific streamlines.  This facilitates a project planning approach that ensures all partners are using the same algorithms and methodology when planning restoration or land protection work.

By 2019, DRWI had entered phase 2+. Modeling continues to inform each year’s investments and enhances understanding of how the establishment of best management practices can dynamically impact or alter the course for the prioritization in future rounds of funding. Focus-area dominant strategies continue to drive investment but additional prioritization factors have been introduced. For example, DRWI wanted to align carbon and resiliency with water quality goals. They also invested in increasing the specificity on both modeled impact and installation location.

FieldDoc for tracking and prioritization 

To meet these prioritization and tracking goals, DRWI and ANS adopted The Commons’ FieldDoc platform for project planning and implementation tracking. Through a lot of digital collaboration, the teams worked together to get all sixty organizations in the DRWI and their implementation work conducted to date entered into the FieldDoc system. Immediately, FieldDoc significantly increased the degree of specificity that planners had when reviewing installation locations and impact for two reasons. First, FieldDoc’s mapping feature allowed users to directly delineate where they conducted their work. Second, FieldDoc integrated with with ANS’s watershed delineation and nutrient and sediment pollution reduction models which allowed users to directly estimate the impact their practice would have on improving water quality. 

The models accessible via FieldDoc help managers answer specific questions. For example, where is agricultural runoff reducing water quality? Where can we achieve water quality improvements more efficiently? Where should stormwater management be targeted? What watershed areas are significantly intact and warrant land protection? 

By 2022, all sixty organizations have contributed to the atlas of projects tracked in FieldDoc. Funders and implementors are starting to ask, “Are we there yet?” Everyone involved wants to know if the hard work done to date is making any meaningful change in water quality across the Delaware Watershed. To answer this question all stakeholders first continue to return to the FieldDoc system to keep their project information up to date. In FieldDoc they provide critical data that helps managers track progress towards programmatic goals, plan future investments, and propose new installation locations. In the coming year, all of the work tracked in FieldDoc will provide critical information to inform goals and implementation strategies for the next ten years.

Patience is a critical component of conservation

Restoring landscapes and improving water quality does not happen overnight. In fact, when you install an agricultural BMP, the positive changes to the landscape or improved ecosystem services not only take a long time but also come in phases. This highlights the importance of ongoing monitoring and maintenance.

What does change look like when it does happen? First, you might see changes in water chemistry. Then, you’ll start to see changes to the algal communities and before long macro-invertebrate species will return. With food to consume and cleaner waters, monitors will finally see fish returning to the previously impaired waterway. How long does that take? Sometimes upwards of 10-15 years. And there is no way to speed up this restoration work.

Powering the DRWI Data Portal

FieldDoc enables DRWI partners the critical lens to evaluate these environmental changes as practices are installed.  Working in Partnership with Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences, our team leveraged the FieldDoc API to create a means of measuring environmental change and reconciling modeled load reductions with what data from routine monitoring sites show.  DRWI Data Portal integrates the decades of baseline monitoring data collected by various DRWI project implementers as well as the science team at Academy for Natural Sciences.  Data include routine monitoring samples, consisting of biological indicators, water chemistry, and physical stream attributes. DRWI Data portal rolls up all of these monitoring results and aligns them in view with best management practices and land protection efforts tracked in FieldDoc.  Together audiences can easily view where restoration and land protection efforts occur while also drilling into monitoring sites to see how restoration projects are changing water quality in the Delaware River Basin.  

Snapshot of the DRWI Data Portal created by The Commons for DRWI.

It’s important to note that the framework for all of these systems supports live data. As users interact with the FieldDoc platform or make changes to their water quality samples (hosted by Drexel) the analytics within DRWI Data portal remain current and up to date, painting a true depiction and full accounting of all the restoration, land protection, and environmental monitoring occurring as a result of DRWI investment.  Despite being a multi-decade project, access to up-to-date data at any time is invaluable to all decision-makers. As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was yesterday and the best data set to use is the one current today.

Our Long Term Vision for FieldDoc

Standardizing the monitoring of restoration projects and BMP implementation is an ongoing, massive task that will only be achieved through truly collaborative efforts and open communication. FieldDoc takes an important first step toward that goal by providing users with a simple interface for project management and incentive based contribution by providing useful metrics that indicate project success. Long term, we will be focused on increasing the utility of BMP specific metrics by leveraging data recorded by our users to inform site and project specific summaries that can be used to evaluate the trajectory of the restoration work. Our team firmly believes that by helping restoration stakeholders solve common hurdles related to management, tracking, and sharing of their on-the-ground work, we can begin to find commonalities and chip away at the massive iceberg that is BMP standardization. This will lead to transparent aggregation of quality volunteer reported practice data that is created from a bottom up movement focused on local watershed and regional restoration.