More days of sweltering heat and flooding: Delaware County confronts climate crisis with its 1st-ever sustainability plan

Climate projections expect Delco to face significant challenges. Delco’s plan contains more than 200 actions to create a more sustainable and resilient county.

The Commodore Barry Bridge connects Chester to Logan Township, N.J.

The Commodore Barry Bridge connects Chester to Logan Township, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

From Delco to Chesco and Montco to Bucks, what about life in Philly’s suburbs do you want WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Delaware County has publicly released its first-ever sustainability plan, following several years of coordination and months of deliberation.

The massive undertaking lays out more than 200 actions with target dates over the next five years. However, the latest climate projections detailed in the plan predict the county and its nearly 580,000 residents are facing an uphill battle.

The county’s dense population and its 12 miles of coastline along the Delaware River have made it particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The forecast laid out in the report projects Delco experiencing an additional 36 to 38 days above 90 degrees each year between now and 2044. In addition to more days of sweltering heat, Delco will see rising precipitation levels — and more flooding.

Fishermen cast their lines in the Delaware River outside Chester Station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“These are real issues that could have tremendous impacts on our residents, said Rebecca Yurkovich, sustainability and resilience manager of Delaware County. “It’s really important to know and be aware of these things now so we can really take action and make changes so our residents can be resilient to these changes.”

One of the major targets of the sustainability plan calls for Delaware County to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in just five years from the 2019 baseline. Delco has a similar target for water consumption.

‘A more resilient future’: Delco wants to avoid chronic flooding of $430 million worth of Delaware riverfront properties

Sustain Delco: A Sustainability Plan for Delaware County is a living document which aims to address climate change by creating a more sustainable and resilient way of life.

When crafting the report, the authors had four guiding principles in mind: economic sustainability, education, governance, and equity, inclusion, and justice.

The plan focuses on six areas: climate resiliency, health and wellness, energy and efficiency, natural resources, transportation, and zero waste.

“We want to move the county closer to a greener, more sustainable future — a more resilient future,” said Carol Martsolf, chair of the Delaware County Sustainability Commission.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Chester City Hall at East 4th Street and Avenue of the States. (Emma :ee/WHYY)

When it comes to climate resiliency, Delco officials have one overarching goal in mind, which is to prepare the county to “adapt, withstand, and recover quickly from the effects of climate change,” they write in the report.

According to the document’s precipitation and sea level projections for 2050, $430 million in property value is at risk of chronic inundation due to an expected 1.4-foot rise in the Delaware River. Annual rainfall is also likely to increase about 2 to 3 inches over the same time period.

“Areas of chronic inundation are those which are seeing flooding 26 or more times per year,” Yurkovich said.

While 48 municipalities are currently participating in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) just one is involved in the NFIP’s Community Rating System. Over the next five years, the county wants all 49 municipalities to adopt climate resiliency practices and be more cognizant of how climate is impacting infrastructure.

Martsolf said roads and bridges need to be able to withstand the higher levels of water in rivers and streams. She also said significant infrastructure needs to be built above the floodplain.

More bike lanes, sidewalks, trails, and electric vehicles?

In the area of transportation, the county might have its most ambitious goals and targets. The collar counties of Philadelphia are notoriously known for their lack of adequate sidewalk coverage, poor walkability, and heavy traffic.

Single occupant motor vehicles might be convenient, but they are a significant contributor to harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Fishermen cast their lines in the Delaware River outside Chester Station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“If you take a look at the impact of transportation on the environment, it’s one of the top ones that affects the environment. Single occupant use is sky high,” Martsolf said. “In Delaware County, 75% of residents take single occupant vehicle trips at least once a day. And that’s definitely one of the aspects that we need to change. But how does that change?”

In order to increase walking and biking as a form of transportation, officials plan to increase the miles of bike lanes, sidewalks, and trails by 5% over the next five years. Delco is currently home to 1,899 miles of sidewalks.

Electric vehicle usage and public transportation are high-priority areas for the county as well. Delco is planning to increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations by 50%. Officials hope to boost the number of electric vehicles in Delco by 400% in that same time frame — all while growing public transit ridership by 20%.

Delco wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions with the help of green energy

In addition to a transportation overhaul, Delco officials would like to increase the use of combustion-free locally sourced renewable energy sources in residential, commercial, and industrial properties by 10% over the next 5 years.

County buildings alone consume nearly 260,000,000 kilowatt hours of energy. Delco’s residents and commercial buildings pump more than 3 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year into the atmosphere.

Officials also have big aspirations in regard to open space and natural resources.

Delaware County is home to more than 7,400 acres of wetlands, 385 miles of stream, and 14,000 acres of protected open space. Being a better steward of the land and the water is a major goal.

Delco wants to increase the number of acres of protected open space and the total tree canopy area by 10% over the next five years.

The county also has the goal of all 49 municipalities completing a brownfield survey in the next five years. Only one has done so to date.

Can Delco make zero waste dreams a reality?

Delaware County produces a lot of trash — more than 646,000 tons a year. Just 37% of that waste ends up getting recycled or composted, which means the rest is burned at the Covanta incinerator in the city of Chester.

The facility has been a magnet for environmental racism concerns. The sustainability plan said the incinerator has placed an unfair burden on Chester and other neighboring communities.

Officials are targeting a trash diversion rate of 50% in the next five years. While not explicitly stated, the county’s recent adoption of a zero-waste plan would rule out incinerators as an acceptable option for trash management.

“That plan really serves to get a little bit deeper into those issues, and it has been referenced in our sustainability plan, but it’s really recognized that incineration no longer is in alignment with the county’s goals and it’s not necessarily meeting the needs of its residents. So, it has been recognized that the county would like to move away from incineration in the near future,” Yurkovich said.

She said the shift, however, won’t happen overnight.

Rounding out the sustainability plan is the focus on health and wellness. The county has set its sights on tackling air and water quality as well as food insecurity over the next five years with the help of the Delaware County Health Department.

While some of the initiatives in the sustainability plan are brand new, others have already been kicked into motion.

“In creating this plan, it was something that was created by the community, for the community. So, this was really created to be a document that all people in all levels of their sustainability journeys could really take something away from. The county had a data driven and community informed approach when making this plan, which really sought to not only inform the public, but also inspire,” Yurkovich said.

From Media Borough’s municipal composting program to Solarize Delco’s endeavors to help neighbors reduce the carbon footprint, Delco is leaning on community partners to truly accomplish its goals.

“We are going to be doing more public outreach, having webinars, meeting with people, maybe even creating like a little fast facts sheet or something like it, because it is a huge document and it may seem complicated, but this is just the beginning,” Martsolf said.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal