Delaware River Stories: An interview with the Delaware Nature Society

Faces of Rivers: A profile series from American Rivers

This interview is part of the American Rivers’ Delaware River Stories Series and is a compilation of conversations with multiple Delaware Nature Society staff, who work statewide in Delaware.

Governor Carney signing The Clean Water for Delaware Act

American Rivers: On July 22nd, 2021 Governor John Carney signed into law House Bill 200, The Clean Water for Delaware Act. This Bill creates a “Clean Water Trust” designed for rebuilding Delaware’s water infrastructure while also focusing on underserved communities. Delaware Nature Society has been a longtime advocate for this legislation. Why is the funding provided by the Clean Water for Delaware Act so important for communities, especially marginalized communities?

Delaware Nature Society: This is a whole new world for clean water in Delaware, and a massive game changer for our communities. Delaware Nature Society and its partners in the Clean Water Campaign have been fighting for this funding for years. The trust is a $50 million dollar investment in clean water, which is tremendous for a state of our size. One of the innovative things about this bill is that it requires seven percent of clean water investments to be set aside for undeserved communities.

Funds going into the trust include $22.5 million allocated for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, $22.5 million for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and $5 million for Resource Conservation in the FY2022 Bond Bill. Delaware Nature Society has been working on this funding for years, and it’s a credit to our partners, volunteers, and staff that we were able to work with the Delaware Legislature and the Governor to pass this historic legislation.

AR: The Clean Water for Delaware Act should provide a wellspring of funding for clean water issues across the state of Delaware. Can you explain any innovations that Delaware Nature Society advocated for?

DelNature: The funding isn’t the only exciting thing about the Clean Water for Delaware Act. For a little background, there are several state agencies that deal with water issues, and they don’t always talk to each other, at least at a high level. This can create a ‘scattershot’ approach to clean water management. One of the things Delaware Nature Society advocated for was the creation of a Clean Water Trust Oversight Committee, which has Cabinet level participation. The Committee will require that every year these water management agencies meet and develop a Strategic Plan for Delaware’s clean water. This will ensure that every year Delaware has a “Clean Water Plan.” The plan must look at how it’s managing stormwater, how it’s utilizing infrastructure, how it’s serving low-income communities, and how it’s measuring water quality. With the funds and the committee working in tandem, there’s going to be a whole sustainable infrastructure built around clean water.

AR: The Clean Water for Delaware Act had wide bi-partisan support. Was there a particular strategy or partner that led to such a landmark bill having agreement from both sides of the aisle?

DelNature: It’s amazing that there was not a single “no” vote on this bill and that the Governor personally weighed in with his support. A big part of the success was thanks to the Governor’s initial budget proposal, where he forwarded the idea of $50 million. We are very grateful to Governor Carney as well as Representative Valerie Longhurst in the House and Senator Bryan Townsend in the Senate. They’ve been longtime allies with Delaware Nature Society on this bill, and the continued effort paid off. One thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is that this bill has been percolating for years. This wasn’t a “one and done” kind of situation, this bill has existed in various forms for 6 years now. One of the keys to success was waiting for the right time to strike. When the time was right, the General Assembly and the Governor said “it’s time to act. We’ve finally come up with a solution. We’ve finally come up with steps forward. We have a little bit of money to spend. Let’s just go for it.” It is truly remarkable that a bill of this size and a bill of this importance be this non-partisan. It’s extremely rare that you have a bill that is this much of a game changer to not to have at least some opposition. Part of that is due to the strength of the bill, the other part is the diligence of our partners and our group of around 3,000 volunteers we call our “Water Warriors.” But credit must go to everybody. There were great conversations, and everybody bought in.

AR: What lessons could non-profits from other states learn from Delaware Nature Society’s work?

DelNature: The number one lesson that we as non-profits must remember is that we have every right to advocate. The perception persists that if you run a non-profit organization, you’re not allowed to make your voice heard in a legislature, or a council, or a congress. That perception is absolutely false. Not only do you have a right to advocate, but you also have a duty. The number one thing is to make your voice heard. Non-profits should have persistence and patience. You can’t take “no” for an answer. This bill was years in the making, there were different versions, there were various sponsors, but we couldn’t give up. We had to say to ourselves “this is where we need to get to.”

Another key thing to success is making sure that the underserved community members are both at the table and that their needs are part of the conversation. That definitely helped this bill. What motivated legislators was the realization that not everyone has acceptable water coming out of their tap. There was a genuine bi-partisan commitment to saying, “that’s not okay.” That wouldn’t have happened if the community and environmental justice leaders were not at the table.

AR: You mentioned that an important step to the success of this bill was ensuring that leaders from the environmental justice community were at the table. Is there a particular strategy you put together for that?

DelNature: Delaware Nature Society has worked hard in the last couple of years to reach out more to underserved communities in Delaware. It is of vital importance to listen to people in these communities. As a traditional environmental organization, we have not been involved in environmental justice issues and we shouldn’t be the voice on them. What we need to do, as a collective, is to connect to these communities while listening to them and about their strategies. When we say “as a collective” we don’t just mean Delaware Nature Society. We mean the Governor’s office, the environmental community, water community, non-profit community, and everyone else involved in the decision-making process.

One of the ways Delaware Nature Society ensured there were additional voices at the table is by asking for an environmental justice community member be added to The Water Infrastructure Advisory Council (WIAC). Delaware Nature Society went to the Governor’s office and said “we are not an environmental justice organization, so we shouldn’t be at the table. But we can help make those connections.” Delaware Nature Society has reached out to our environmental justice partners to ask who they would propose to be at the table, and we’ve shared those names with the Governor’s office. To find that person we put a call out to the community and asked “who would you put in this group.” Delaware Nature Society is not vetting these candidates. They are not handpicked candidates from us. We are simply listening to the environmental justice community and forwarding who they believe should be their representatives at the table.

AR: Now that the bill is signed into law, what’s next for Delaware Nature Society?

DelNature: An important thing to remember is, that now that we have the Clean Water for Delaware Act and $50 million in the Clean Water Trust Fund, the work is not over. The work is just starting. Our Water Warriors have been relentless in their pursuit of clean water, and one opportunity for the Water Warriors, and for Delaware Nature Society as a whole, is to help shape the “annual strategic plan” and provide input on how the funding is spent. Traditionally in Delaware the funding is spent through the “Water Infrastructure Advisory Council” (WIAC). The WIAC meets regularly throughout the year to decide how to spend clean water funding. They’ll still serve in that important role, but they will also make recommendations to the Clean Water Trust Oversight Committee. Delaware Nature Society has been heavily involved in ensuring that Committee has the right people on it. We will be working with the Committee to shape how they spend the money while also ensuring the Clean Water Strategic Plan has public input. There’s still a lot of work to do, and we can’t get complacent. One of the worst things we can think is “we’ve got it. We’re done.” The work has just begun.

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