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Happy to Be Here: A next step for the Delaware Canal


What would Bucks Couty look like if a proposal to fill in the Delaware Canal had succeeded? Envision I-95 running through the river towns of Washington Crossing, New Hope and Riegelsville — seems incredible but it almost happened.

Until residents got involved.

That was years after the then-100-year-old canal, succumbing to railroad dominance, ceased commercial operation, and after it had been made a state park. Building of th canal as part of a national network was commissioned by Pennsylvania in the 1830s. After state operation, from 1866 to 1931, the Delaware Canal was run by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, which also owned the Lehigh Canal.

Local residents formed the Delaware Valley Protective Association in 1933 to preserve the emarkable waterway that once carried coal and lumber from Central Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. That organization evolved in 1982 as the Friends of the Delaware Canal, which grew into the vital organization that exists today.

According to the Friends’ website, “Canal traffic and revenue declined until the ‘iron horse’ finally beat the mule, when the last paying boat locked through in October 17, 1931. The same day, 40 miles of the Delaware Canal was deeded to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was named Roosevelt State Park by Gov. Gifford Pinchot, to commemorate his fellow preservationist, Theodore Roosevelt.”

The state acquired all 60 miles of the canal — Easton to Bristol — in 1940, and largely through the efforts of the Friends, it was named Delaware Canal State Park in 1989. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.

Delaware Canal State Park exists today as the last towpath canal in America capable of being fully watered, and it sits alongside the Delaware River, the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi River.

But the canal is not fully watered, even though one of its primary goals is to ensure that the canal is fully watered from Easton to Bristol. Storms and limited funds have prevented the rewatering despite years of efforts.

Twenty years ago, Delaware Canal 21, a new group spearheaded by Allen Black, a former Friends president, and Randy Apgar, a former Friends board member, formed with the same objective as the Friends. But its approach was to aim higher, to go after funding from major philanthropic groups, to think of costs in millions, not thousands of dollars. Although it has financed major repairs and studies, the water-filled canal has continued to elude that group.

In January, Canal 21 released a comprehensive study of what it would take to do a complete overhaul — to repair the clay lining, to fix the plumbing, to rebuild the infrastructure — to make the canal a world-class waterway, the kind that exists in Europe and Asia. In September 2021, Delaware Canal 21 engaged Econsult Solutions Inc. to manage the project, with support from the planning firm Simone Collins and engineering firm eDesign Dynamics.

“It’s a daunting task,” said Richard Henriquez, chairman of the Canal 21 board, of the proposed restoration. And the cost would be close to $100 million, including maintenance, over five years.

“It’s complex,” he said. “There are two counties, the state, 17 municipalities. There’s been a lot of research on how to think differently.”

Henriquez said in a press release, “The Delaware Canal’s value extends far beyond its banks. It enriches canal communities by creating public benefits that improve quality of life and boost property values. And it ties them together throughout its length. So, it makes sense for these communities to partner with each other and with the state park that owns the canal, to create a sustainable funding structure for a unique regional feature.”

The study team concluded that indeed restoration was possible. The team examined alternative funding models, conducted an in-depth engineering analysis, estimated the historic, economic, fire safety and environmental benefits of the canal and developed a new stewardship model to support DCNR and the canal. They also identified potential funding sources.

Of course there’s cost involved and there are economic advantages — eDesign Dynamics, the engineering firm for the feasibility analysis, developed an estimated cost to achieve a corridor-long, rehabilitation for all water elements that serves as a baseline budgeting metric and $90 million in construction investments over five years would yield $141 million in economic activity and would support approximately 700 jobs in Bucks and Northampton counties.

An important suggestion that came out of the study was to “form a Delaware Canal Improvement District (to serve as a funding, planning, and management partner for maintenance of the Canal) could supplement PA DCNR funding and ensure the long-term sustainability of a fully watered canal, enabling the array of environmental, economic, and public benefits to the community.”

Steve Wray, Econsult project team leader for the canal study, said the timing is right for revitalizing the Delaware Canal. Funding could be available through the federal infrastructure bill and state support could come from new parks initiatives. And a lot of support is available from local organizations like the Friends and Delaware Canal 21, he said.

A third indication of support is the collaboration of DCNR with Bucks and Northampton counties. “These three things along with the creation of an improvement district will help enable the project to succeed,” Wray said.

Again, the future of the Delaware Canal is back in residents’ hands. The local community is being asked to lend its support.

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