Op-Ed: American Jobs Plan could bolster the basin
President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan has the potential to make transformative investments in America’s infrastructure, from waterways and transportation to clean energy and natural resources.
One of the most visionary elements of the plan is the call for historic levels of investment in bolstering the restoration and resilience of our natural resources, especially in the face of more extreme weather. This opportunity could be an absolute gamechanger for the Delaware River Basin and the four states along its banks and headwaters.
Lawmakers from Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are already rolling up their sleeves and working with The White House to ensure the plan includes resources for the Delaware River Basin to tackle the restoration and resilience projects needed to secure this founding river for future generations.
We desperately need the jobs here. Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country — all are in the bottom one-third. Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is 7.3% and some areas within the basin are seeing unemployment rates much higher than the state average. The city and county of Philadelphia’s unemployment rate is 11.2%, and the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton unemployment rate is 7.8%. Research shows that targeting job creation efforts in economically distressed communities is a highly effective strategy to lower overall unemployment rates.
One way that the Biden administration is proposing to put folks back to work is through the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. This type of program, modeled after and improving upon the Depression-era CCC, would train Americans for skilled jobs, correct past environmental injustices, and support a full range of restoration and resilience jobs our nation needs now more than ever. Programs like this are a way to train local workers in a new skill set, while providing good-paying jobs restoring and conserving the habitats, wetlands, and public lands in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, two Senators from our region — Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Delaware’s Chris Coons — have emerged as leading champions nationwide for this critical work.
The Delaware River Basin is also poised to benefit from significant proposed investments in ecological restoration and water infrastructure. The Delaware River Basin Restoration Program, created by Delaware Senator Tom Carper and former New York Congressman Chris Gibson, has an estimated $150 million worth of projects that could be implemented to create jobs over the next five years. This program provides funding for natural infrastructure projects — forests, wetlands, dunes, reefs and others — to prevent erosion, flooding, and pollution.
Since its inception in 2018, the program has supported 90 on-the-ground projects totaling $16.86 million in federal grants and leveraged an additional $34 million of private resources. For example, the program recently gave the Schuylkill River Development Corporation $50,000 to rehabilitate an abandoned industrial pier into a usable recreational pier and the surrounding riverbank in Philadelphia to expand recreational opportunities, improve river access, and restore natural shorelines to enhance water quality and wildlife habitat. Another grant of $233,830 to the Lower Merion Conservancy will be used to improve storm water management, restore wildlife habitat, and improve recreational access on the Cynwyd Heritage Trail and along sections of Vine Creek.
Investing in the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program as part of the infrastructure package will create jobs where we need them most, while expanding our outdoor economy and boosting climate resiliency. In fact, the Delaware River Basin has at least $55 million worth of shovel ready infrastructure projects right now, including restoring wildlife refuges, expanding environmental education programs, and addressing flooding and sewer overflows with green infrastructure.
Restoring the natural infrastructure of the Delaware River Basin through President Biden’s American Jobs Plan will put thousands of Pennsylvanians back to work and build a better economy while working toward a cleaner, healthier, and safer environment for all of us. We urge Congress to ensure that America’s founding waterway isn’t left behind.
Collin O'Mara serves as President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Jacquelyn Bonomo serves as President and CEO of PennFuture.