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Happy to Be Here: Historic agreement among officials


Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has a $100 million backlog of repair and maintenance projects.

Is it any wonder that its 121 state parks are in constant need of help? Our local Delaware Canal State Park is on the list – it’s been needy for years – and the threat of storm and flood damage never goes away.

The canal, an important trade route in its day, stretches 60 miles to the north, from Bristol in Bucks County to Easton in Northampton County, where it meets the Delaware and the east-west Lehigh Canal.

It was built as part of the Pennsylvania canal system that transported goods by barges drawn by mules along the towpath between northern and western Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. The Delaware Canal is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.

Never in recent memory has the state budget allocated enough funding to maintain the parks. Yet, they are vital resources for residents and visitors and they have enormous economic value.

That’s why local citizens groups like Friends of the Delaware Canal, founded in 1977, get together to help support state parks. That group followed the Delaware Canal Protective Association, organized after the canal closed to commercial operation in 1932. It was a far-sighted, visionary organization.

And now, several visionary groups and government agencies are pulling together in a historic partnership that crosses county and regional lines to ensure funding for repairs, maintenance and canal enhancement projects.

Three leaders of Delaware Canal 21 – founders Allen Black and Randy Apgar and Douglas Dolan, executive director – talked about their aspirations as the collaboration was announced. Black is chairman of the Canal 21 board and Apgar is a board member and former president of Friends of the Delaware Canal.

Canal 21, a nonprofit formed in 2012 to explore options for putting the canal on a sustainable footing, has developed a new business plan that would create an unprecedented county-level authority in partnership with Bucks County and Northampton County. The ultimate goal is to fill the canal and maintain it for its entire length for years to come.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Bucks County and Northampton County have agreed to work together in a feasibility study. They have signed agreements to support the study and provide professional input until it’s completed. DCNR and the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) have awarded grants totaling $175,000 for the study and Canal 21 is seeking an additional $115,000 from DCED and private donors.

The study is planned to begin this fall and be completed in 2021 – it is expected to take from nine months to a year to complete.

Canal 21, working with DCNR, has already made progress on seven water and trail initiatives, funded by the William Penn Foundation and DCNR.

Dolan outlined the projects:

- In Bristol, collaborating with the borough and other local partners, DC21 is improving public access to the canal at its southern terminus and addressing ways to restore missing segments of the towpath.

- Morrisville and Yardley Boroughs are investigating mitigation measures for controlling flood-prone areas.

- DC21 is working with the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission to design a bridge for trail access to the new Scudder Falls Bridge that will connect Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

- And the City of Easton is evaluating options to build an accessible bicycle and pedestrian link from downtown to the head of the Delaware Canal.

- DC21’s efforts to retain water in the canal are continuing in the face of leaks and sinkholes throughout the canal’s length. And repairing the affected sections leads to another project – monitoring the canal’s water quality.

The Delaware Canal is an important watershed – more than 51 percent of Bucks County land drains into or under the canal. The project involves local watershed and conservation associations that want to improve the recreational experience and water quality by controlling inflow and leakage along the canal and providing better access to the towpath, a major walking and cycling route, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic.

The canal is also a source of water for many uses. An example of monetizing canal use is across the river, where New Jersey supports its Delaware and Raritan Canal by selling water for municipal use.

And internationally, canals have been preserved and enhanced to become tourist attractions. Black and Apgar discovered the breadth of canal possibilities when they presented a paper on the Delaware Canal to an international organization of canal entrepreneurs in Scotland.

At this landmark juncture, Black thanked the leaders of DCNR and both counties. He said their “willingness to think out of the box had led to a positive outcome.”

“The critical element,” Apgar said, is having water flowing from Easton to Bristol.

“Delaware Canal’s ultimate goal,” its latest report says, “is to put ourselves out of business. Once the new business model is implemented for the canal and is working well after a couple of years’ transition, Delaware Canal 21 will dissolve, having accomplished its purpose.”