Yearslong effort to fund Delaware clean water program finally pays off

Kayakers on the Christina River

The Christina River flows through Wilmington, Del. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Seven years after it was first proposed, state lawmakers have finally approved legislation to fund better protections for Delaware waterways and to rebuild drinking water infrastructure.

In 2014, then-Gov. Jack Markell called the state of Delaware’s waterways “unacceptable” and “embarrassing.” He proposed a $45 annual fee for residents and up to $25,000 for corporate water users to fund a program of improvements.

But with lawmakers unwilling to sign on the fee structure, those efforts fell flat in Dover.

Subsequent years saw similar efforts share like fates, with questions of funding always overriding the widely agreed need for improvements.

“The main issue throughout the past 30 years has always been funding. ‘Where are you going to get the money?’” Gov. John Carney said. “We’ve had all kinds of debates. I’ve won and lost friends as part of those discussions.”

Things turned out different this year, thanks in part to a surplus flow of cash coming into the state via federal COVID relief dollars. That extra money led to the approval of both the largest general budget in state history and the biggest capital budget Delaware’s ever seen.

That capital improvement budget will fund $55 million in clean drinking water projects.

When combined with House Bill 200, which Carney signed last week, that money will help small communities fund drinking water projects that are hard to finance.

The help will be especially welcomed in southern Delaware’s Sussex County, where thousands lack access to safe public drinking water.

“Clean water is a right and it’s not a privilege, and that is what I’ve been saying from day one when I took this on,” said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, who was the prime sponsor of HB 200, also known as the Clean Water Act. “We’re making history. We’re saying that Delaware cares about our water. We’re investing in it.”

Interim director of the Delaware Nature Society Joanne McGeoch praised the move, calling the new funding a “game-changer” for water infrastructure in the state.

“Clean water is critical to Delaware’s environment, wildlife, economy, food supply, and public health. HB 200 will ensure that this vital resource is protected today, and for future generations,” she said.

The bill also creates a Clean Water Trust that is designed to provide project funding for years into the future. “Through the Clean Water Trust, we will be able to bring more resources to bear and more partners to the table to address the water challenges of our state,” said Shawn Garvin, leader of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

The Clean Water Trust will fund projects beyond just drinking water infrastructure and will include money for stormwater and wastewater treatment, drainage work, waterway management, and beach preservation.

The legislation got near-unanimous support in the General Assembly. Carney signed it into law last week.

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