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Maya K. van Rossum: Woman of the Delaware River Watershed

By Maya K. van Rossum

Maya is receiving the Woman of the Delaware River Watershed award at PennFuture's Fourth Annual Celebrating Women in Conservation Awards on April 19 in Philadelphia for her protection of the watershed through advocacy and leadership at Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

I grew up in the Delaware River watershed, playing in Ithan Creek, a tributary to the Darby Creek, which is a tributary to the Delaware. I remember playing for hours in the water, squishing my feet in the sandy soils on its banks, walking through the culvert that carried the creek under the road, and sitting quietly under a tree with big sprawling roots and branches, just watching the water go quietly by. I guess this is the time and place when my love for our beautiful watershed was born and grew its own roots. Watching the damage inflicted on the creeks, forests and animals of my community is when I learned that nature needs a voice in our human world, and without it, nature is truly at the mercy of people. 

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network was formed in 1988 when our watershed residents, like I did as a child, recognized that the Delaware River, its tributaries and natural communities need people who will give it a voice in our human community, to ensure it gets the highest level of protection. 

For 24 years, I have had the honor of leading the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and of bearing the title of the Delaware Riverkeeper. But of course, championing the rights of our river and communities to free flow, health, and abundant life is not the job of one person; it is the job of a community. That is what the Delaware Riverkeeper Network is all about: creating and supporting the community willing to stand up and both speak and act in defense of our river and watershed.

The most rewarding aspect of this award for me is that residents from communities I work with nominated me. Every day, I have the honor of working with people who care deeply about our natural resources and one another. They are threatened by toxic contamination, threatened by the taking of their property for a pipeline, fearful that fracking will be allowed to come to our watershed and devastate their lives, suffering from growing flooding, or worried about the loss of a special species. These are people with tremendous integrity, strength and spirit. That these people took the time out of their busy lives and away from the environmental cause they are working so hard on to nominate me, is the greatest honor.

With so many challenges facing our River and communities, it can be easy to lose sight of the progress and successes we have achieved with our watershed community. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network in 1989 submitted and advocated a petition before the Delaware River Basin Commission that changed the course of our River’s history. The petition and supporting advocacy resulted in the creation of the Special Protection Waters program, giving highest legal protection to the Middle and Upper Delaware. A second petition we submitted in 2001 extended that protection to the Lower Delaware River, resulting in the longest stretch of river anywhere in the nation (197 miles) with this highest level of protection. In 2010, it is this protection that became the basis of the moratorium that has protected our Delaware River watershed from drilling and fracking operations, including the water withdrawals and wastewater storage and disposal. Today, we are working hard to make these protections complete and permanent.  

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network was the lead plaintiff with the American Littoral Society (of whom the organization was originally a part) in the case that resulted in Pennsylvania and Delaware implementing the Total Maximum Daily Load regulations (TMDLs) required by the Clean Water Act, and is now the basis of the often applauded Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Until our litigation and settlement, this critical portion of the law had been ignored by both states.  

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network has been instrumental in protecting the horseshoe crabs of the Delaware Bay and River’s genetically unique population of Atlantic sturgeon; defeating dam proposals and having them replaced with more beneficial strategies; advancing strong stormwater and development strategies; and more. 

Most recently, I have been advancing a national Green Amendment movement. My new book, titled The Green Amendment, tells the story of how the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, working with seven towns, secured the constitutional right of the people of Pennsylvania to pure water, clean air and a healthy environment by breathing legal life into the long ignored constitutional provision.  

The legal victory achieved in 2013 in the case Robinson Twp., Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. Commonwealth, not only defeated a very damaging pro-fracking piece of legislation, but has since been used by my organization and communities throughout the state to protect the rights of communities to a healthy environment in those situations when the state has itself, or through the actions of others, overstepped to infringe upon those rights. The value of this victory should not stop at the borders of Pennsylvania. I see a vision for inspiring the whole nation to follow Pennsylvania’s lead and to seek and secure constitutional provisions in every state in the nation and at the federal level that recognize and protect the right to a healthy environment as inalienable rights with the same level of protection we give other fundamental rights like the right to free speech and freedom of religion. My deepest hope is that we start a Green Amendment movement that sweeps the nation.  

The 2018 Celebrating Women in Conservation Awards will be held Thursday, April 19 at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Click here to purchase tickets.

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