How will climate change affect the Delaware watershed and the region's water supply? That's the "elephant in the atmosphere," as the Academy of Natural Sciences' Roland Wall put it, and part of the focus of a multimillion-dollar research initiative launching this week.
Researchers know that changes in temperature and precipitation will impact the Delaware River and the areas that surround it, but Wall, director of the academy's environmental initiatives, said much less is known about the best approaches to prepare for this and protect the water supply in general.
"Unless we understand them scientifically, we can't really say what's the right thing to do about them," said Wall.
The initiative, administered through the academy and Drexel University, includes $5 million to support academic research exploring this question, specifically as it relates to the Delaware Watershed, the 13,500-square mile area from New Jersey to Delaware that drains into the Delaware River. The initiative will also zero in on whether other approaches and technology already in place are enough to protect the water supply.
"There're really specific things, like how much forest does it take to make a watershed work well? What kinds of contaminants are being dealt with? What's the best way of dealing with them?" Wall said. "So understanding if we want to do protection, if we want to do restoration, if we want to make sure streams continue to function properly, then we need to understand what all of the mechanics of those things are."
The William Penn Foundation is funding the initiative. That's in addition to its $40 million funding of on-the-ground watershed projects through the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.
Full disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports WHYY coverage of watershed issues.