How the William Penn Foundation Is Protecting Drinking Water for 15 Million Americans

The Philadelphia metropolitan area lies in the Delaware watershed, along the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi. Simply put, a watershed is the land that water moves across and under as it flows. This particular watershed provides water for drinking and for commercial, industrial, and recreational purposes for more than 15 million people in Philadelphia, New York City, and along the East Coast.

Given the relevance of the Delaware watershed, the William Penn Foundation has dedicated an entire grantmaking area toward cleaning and protecting it. Gas drilling, toxic fracking, and commercial overdevelopment pose the biggest threats, but if any foundation can threaten back, it's Penn. (Read William Penn Foundation: Philadelphia Grants.)

In a recent press release, Penn's chief financial officer, Laura Sparks, announced that "the foundation is directing significant funding toward impacting the entire watershed and is interested in creating a 'vision for the watershed.'" Sparks flew at a two-day event about the watershed at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Around 60 other nongovernmental organizations were in attendance as well, but few as passionate about the issue as the Penn Foundation.

Debates about shale drilling and natural gas extraction from the Delaware River Basin's Marcellus Shale have been all over the news lately. However, the Penn Foundation is keeping political commentary to a minimum. The foundation has a different "vision" in mind. Instead of taking a divisive anti-fracking stance, Penn is pouring money into constituency-building strategies to transform ordinary citizens into environmental activists.

Senior Program Officer Andrew Johnson and Program Officer Clare Billett are leading the charge in the foundation offices. Johnson and Billett aren't chaining themselves to the shoreline in the name of conservation, but they are channeling foundation funds toward programs that bring key waterways to the forefront of Philadelphians' minds. Here's a sampling of recent grants that are part of this strategy:

  • Wildlands Conservatory: Funding to expand bike and boat programs along the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers
  • Outward Bound Philadelphia: Funding for outdoor programming at the East Park Reservoir and Schuylkill River Trail, targeted at Philadelphia Public School students
  • Scattergood Foundation: Funding to implement community stewardship activities along the Tacony Creek Trail, now open to the public for the first time

For the foreseeable future, the Penn Foundation plans to leave water quality analysis and fracking debates to activists and politicians. And even if Penn's grants don't directly affect (or protect) the Delaware watershed, at least they're getting residents off the couch and out into nature.