We launched the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) in 2014 to address four primary threats to clean water in the riverbasin: stormwater, runoff from agricultural fields, forest loss, and groundwater depletion. The DRWI coordinates and aligns the work of over 50 organizations funded by the William Penn Foundation, with a goal of creating a critical mass of land preservation and restoration work in targeted sub-watersheds where we can demonstrate significant, durable water quality improvements. Through a combination of high-level coordination and on-the-ground work, the DRWI mitigates threats to water quality through strategic, science-informed land protection and restoration. We have committed more than $100 million to date to support this effort.


The Challenge

The Delaware River watershed covers 13,500 square miles in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Myriad state agencies and local jurisdictions create a complex set of laws and regulations governing the land use activities of thousands of landowners, developers, and farmers. Those activities, in turn, often have an impact on water quality, typically referred to as nonpoint source pollution. In fact, about half of the pollution in the watershed today is the result of nonpoint sources, including development in headwater forests, runoff from agricultural fields, and stormwater.

Increasing levels of nonpoint source pollution across the watershed pose a growing threat to aquatic ecosystems, recreation, and drinking water for more than 13 million people. But, effectively addressing nonpoint source pollution across the system is a challenging and expensive undertaking, one that will require broad and ongoing collaboration across the public, private, and NGO sectors, as well as across political jurisdictions. The jurisdictional fragmentation of the watershed, however, makes it difficult for public agencies and NGOs alike to be strategic in the context of the larger system.

It is clear that piecemeal solutions to the causes of nonpoint source pollution typically are not effective, and protection and restoration projects in the wrong places may not have the desired impact on water quality over the long-term. The challenge for the Foundation therefore is to use its grantmaking to demonstrate effective conservation approaches and practices in the right places at a meaningful scale that can serve as replicable models elsewhere in the Delaware River watershed and beyond.


The Opportunity

As a private funder unconstrained by geographic or political boundaries, we can be nimble and strategic in applying our funding while considering the needs of the basin as a complete system. Informed by emergent scientific modeling tools and real-time analysis, we saw an opportunity to develop and implement a funding strategy that would address forest loss, agricultural run-off and stormwater concerns based on prioritization of specific sub-watersheds where the science indicated we can “lock in” clean water or where we have a reasonable chance of restoring it. We also saw an opportunity to use our grantmaking to deliberately align the work of many strong local land trusts and watershed associations in these priority sub-watersheds, which were selected with their assistance and local knowledge.

While most conservation organizations in our region have a local focus that inadvertently helps to reinforce the fragmented nature of conservation in the larger watershed, we recognized that this local focus also presents an opportunity to advance a watershed-wide conservation strategy. At the sub-watershed scale, these organizations know the land in their regions, generate strong local support and perform high-quality, visible work. We believe that there is a significant opportunity to harness locally motivated energy and align efforts of many individual organizations toward shared goals in prioritized sub-watersheds to achieve synergies and increase impact in addressing nonpoint source pollution more broadly.


Our Approach

After engaging many grantees and stakeholders in its design, we launched the Delaware River Watershed Initiative with a focus on eight clusters of small sub-watersheds to maximize the impact of our conservation grantmaking. It was designed to leverage opportunities for collaboration and compounded impact resulting from alignment in prioritized places.

The DRWI was designed and launched in the absence of any state or federally mandated watershed-wide requirement for restoration or protection of water quality. It is an NGO-led watershed protection program driven by the cumulative effort, strategic thinking, and vision of over 50 organizations. As the DRWI’s largest funder, we provide grants to local partners to plan and carry out protection and restoration projects and to other partners to offer high-level technical assistance and capital re-grant programs in support of the local efforts. Our funding has leveraged millions more from other sources to complement this work.

While the DRWI was conceived and designed in partnership with others as a William Penn Foundation grantmaking strategy, our hope is that, through the process of building and refining the Initiative with the input of dozens of participants and stakeholders, there is a framework of relationships and practice that will endure beyond our grantmaking that can methodically address nonpoint source pollution over time.

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Four high-capacity organizations that assisted with the design of DRWI evolved into a critical coordinating committee for the Initiative. The coordinating committee provides technical assistance, manages regrant funds we have capitalized, monitors water quality, and fosters collaboration.

  • As the DRWI’s science lead, the Academy of Natural Sciences established baseline scientific data for the watershed and a comprehensive monitoring plan it is implementing to assess water quality and ecological results over time.
  • The Open Space Institute is the land protection lead and manages re-grants through a Delaware River Watershed Protection Fund.
  • The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is the restoration lead. It administer re-grants through the Delaware River Restoration Fund, funding restoration projects in areas with degraded water quality and innovations that have potential to accelerate water quality improvements in the basin.
  • The Institute for Conservation Leadership brings its organizational expertise to bear to help this collaboration of dozens of partners to be efficient and effective.

The eight “clusters” of sub-watersheds where the DRWI’s work is focused were established based on the U.S. Geological Survey’s system of HUC 12’s, prioritizing headwater streams where data shows that intervention can significantly improve a degraded system or preserve areas still largely intact. In these eight clusters, teams of up to a dozen local organizations are implementing shared action plans designed to improve water quality, using either land protection or restoration techniques (or a combination of both) tailored to avoid or mitigate nonpoint source threats to water quality. The teams rely on water quality modeling to predict the effects of their work, and assess their impact by monitoring water chemistry, biology and physical stream system health indicators from more than 500 sites. Each cluster has identified priority focus areas, which are where capital projects funded through the OSI and NFWF re-grant funds are located, building a critical mass of projects over time. In addition, DRWI’s structure is designed to encourage adaptive learning to collectively refine conservation practice over time.

By collaborating on prioritized land protection, restoration, strategic outreach, education, and communications efforts, and producing local successes that catalyze changes to the policy and practice of watershed protection, the cluster teams have created a model for coordinated action in a large watershed.

Progress to Date

We believe that DRWI has built a regional movement based on local work, becoming a real-world instance of “think globally act locally.” The Initiative, fundamentally, is based on the idea that place-based conservation—which easily can be done in isolation or with limited sets of partners—can be made more effective when multiple place-based organizations working on similar issues are given the opportunity to build significant connections to one another.

As it has evolved, the scale of DRWI’s work has helped to put the Delaware River basin—long underfunded-- on the radar of other important funders, particularly federal agencies and programs. New federal funding has been secured through the US Department of Agriculture and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in large part because of the concentration of conservation organizations engaged in the strategic work of DRWI. In the process, the Initiative is demonstrating how to leverage the identity of the larger basin without marginalizing local, place-based organizations working at a different scale.

In addition, to date DRWI partners have:

  • Developed modeling and monitoring tools designed to strengthen DRWI participants’ ability to strategically focus, target and prioritize their work by modeling impact on water quality.
  • Permanently protected nearly 20,000 acres of high-value forestland in Phase 1, and are making progress toward the goal of reaching an additional 30,000 protected acres during Phase 2. 
  • Collectively restored more than 50 miles of riparian habitat, conserved over 150 acres of wetlands, improved 4,575 acres of forest habitat, and delivered conservation best management practices on over 16,600 acres of working farmland in the Delaware watershed.
  • Built a shared database to track project progress and related metrics such as gallons of stormwater avoided, pounds of phosphorous and sediment avoided, and acres protected, so participants and other stakeholders can assess progress at a glance.
  • Established a culture of sharing and learning across DRWI, including programs for executive directors, monitoring and communications teams, and a yearly gathering with all partners to celebrate progress and share key learnings.


As we continue to develop and strengthen this network and focus on carrying out Phase 2 plans, we are also looking longer-term and grappling with bigger questions including how to make this effort sustainable into the future.

Progress Timeline

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