The White Clay Watershed Association was formed in the mid-60's by people involved in opposing plans to build a dam and reservoir on the White Clay Creek. The dam, designed to supply water for New Castle County, was to have been constructed north of Newark and the reservoir would have backed up into Pennsylvania. It would have flooded a large portion of what is now the White Clay Creek Park and Preserve of Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Water supply planners for various interests had long had their eyes on the White Clay Creek. The Pennsylvania Railroad had begun purchasing land along the creek in anticipation of building a small dam and reservoir for its subsidiary, the Delaware Water Company. The Railroad never acted upon these plans before selling the subsidiary, however.
In the 1950's, the DuPont Company was becoming concerned about water supply issues in New Castle County because it was having difficulty obtaining needed water supply commitments from local water suppliers for planned expansions of its Newport and Edge Moor Plants. DuPont did a study concerning the feasibility of a reservoir on the White Clay Creek and began to encourage local governments to plan for it and build it. In 1956, DuPont purchased the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's now unneeded land and also began buying up other properties along the creek in order to prevent residential development from interfering with these plans.
The White Clay reservoir idea was included in a 1960 report by the Corps of Engineers for the Delaware River Basin. In 1961 consulting engineers hired by the New Castle County Levy Court determined that a reservoir "must be started as soon as possible" since a "major new source of surface water supply" would be needed by 1967. Attempting to muster public support for the reservoir, a 1963 editorial in the Evening Journal concluded that the case had been convincingly made and proclaimed that:
Understandably, some of the earliest opposition came from landowners that would be displaced by the reservoir. An irritant for many Pennsylvanians was the idea that Delaware could acquire land in another state for its own purposes. Pennsylvania landowners Gwen Cramer and Jan Kalb became heavily involved in opposing the reservoir. They attended and conducted many meetings and wrote newspaper articles and newsletters to inform their neighbors of what was being planned. One meeting at Kemblesville attracted 350 people. Gwen says that women took leadership roles because many of the men in the area were employed by DuPont and were reluctant to publicly criticize company plans. Gwen, a prolific writer for the cause, recalls people questioning whether a woman could indeed write as much and as well as she did - the suspicion being that a group of men were actually doing the writing and publishing over her name. Jan, who tended to do most of the public speaking, recalls attending every Delaware River Basin Commission meeting for fifteen years. Gwen and Jan also incurred many thousands of dollars of non-reimbursed travel and printing expenses during this time.
Dorothy Miller recalls that it was the 1964 passage of enabling legislation that finally galvanized the opposition in Delaware. The bill enabled the Levy Court of New Castle County to establish a water supply system on the White Clay Creek and gave it the right to sell bonds to acquire the necessary lands in Delaware and Pennsylvania without having a public referendum. Influential early Delaware opponents of the reservoir included Dennis Neuzil of the Delaware Sierra Club, Don Sharpe of the United Auto Workers, and Dorothy Miller of the Newark Bird Club.
Jan Kalb recalls the day when the Pennsylvania opponents of the reservoir first met up with the Delaware opponents. She and her husband were hiking along the Brandywine north of Wilmington when the trail crossed a parking lot. A car with Delaware tags parked there had a bumper sticker that she had never seen before: "Save White Clay Creek - Don't Dam It". Jan waited in the parking lot almost two hours for the owner to return and introduced herself. The fledgling groups made contact and eventually joined forces to oppose the dam.
In 1965 people working to oppose the reservoir formally incorporated the White Clay Watershed Association. Sally Rickerman filed the incorporation papers, obtained 501(C)(3) tax-exempt status, and obtained a bulk mailing permit for the new organization.
New Castle County commissioned a study from the engineering consulting firm of Whitman, Requardt and Associates of Baltimore. This study, delivered in 1967, predicted a county population explosion and identified the White Clay Creek as "the only feasible source of additional water supply". It laid out plans for a $12 million project in which a 1200 ft wide, 100 ft high earth dam and concrete lined spillway was to be constructed at Wedgewood Rd. The reservoir would cover 1160 acres, 560 acres in Delaware and 600 in Pennsylvania. It was to be capable of supplying a reliable 71 million gallons of water per day to the county. The study concluded that the project was needed immediately and construction should begin as soon as possible. Interestingly, the study predicted the reservoir would only meet the needs of the county through the year 2000 when even more water supply projects would be needed.
Dennis Neuzil, of the Delaware Sierra Club, criticized of the reservoir study's population projections for New Castle County. Delaware had undergone a growth spurt following World War II, and the study assumed that this growth rate would remain constant far into the future. The population of New Castle County was 350,000 in 1967, and the study projected growth to 700,000 in 1986 and 1,100,000 in 2010. This projected population explosion, and resultant need for more water, was the key justification for the reservoir. In retrospect, it is obvious that these projections were far too high, as the present day population of the county is only 525,587 (2006 Census Bureau estimate).
A concern for Pennsylvania landowners near the proposed reservoir was mud flats. Although it was claimed that the reservoir would be mostly full most of the time, Pennsylvania residents who studied the topology of the Pennsylvania portion of the reservoir realized that minor draw-downs would leave large expanses of mud flats there. It was feared that these mud flats would be unsightly, smelly and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Bob Taylor, the New Garden Township Supervisor who served as a President of the WCWA during that time, characterized the project as "Mud Flats for Pennsylvania, Water for Delaware".
There is still bitterness about the strong-armed tactics used by the real estate agents whose job it was to persuade landowners to sell. Sally Rickerman remembers agents offering landowners $1000 per acre if they sold now with threats that they would receive much less if the land had to be condemned later. Many landowners succumbed, and by the time the 1967 study was completed, DuPont had succeeded in buying up 87% of the 1556 acres of the land needed. Of the 18 owners of the remaining 203 acres, the largest holdouts by far were the Cramers with 86 acres.
Opponents of the reservoir did not neglect to put forward responsible alternatives. They pointed out that Hoopes reservoir, at that time operated exclusively for the City of Wilmington, had sufficient water to supply the projected needs of the entire county for several decades. The proposal for an Interconnect between the various water suppliers in the county was made. It was also pointed out that vast untapped ground water supplies were still available. The Sierra Club suggested out that "Desalinization methods continue to improve in economic feasibility, and … may eventually be the most economical supply source for many urban areas."
The state line proved to be an impediment to the project. Although many Delaware public officials were initially supportive, most Pennsylvania public officials were more skeptical. Local township officials were concerned about the disruption the project would cause. A delegation from the Watershed Association, including Gwen Cramer, Jan Kalb, Jack and Anne Murray, and others went to Harrisburg to visit Morris Goddard, State Secretary of the Dept. of Forest and Waters, in an attempt to dissuade Pennsylvania from supporting the project. They spread out maps on the floor of the office, and Jan recalls thinking they were getting through when he got out from behind his desk and got down on the floor to study the maps with them.
The plans for the massive White Clay Creek dam and reservoir began to unravel in the mid-70's. By then the project had aroused considerable public opposition. A Population Consortium consisting of several agencies came up with new population projections that were far more realistic than those used in the Whitman-Requardt study. Some of the suggestions previously put forth by the opponents of the reservoir were found to be practical and were eventually implemented. An Interconnect system was developed which allowed the various water supply systems in the county to transfer water from one system to another when needed. In 1979 the City of Wilmington agreed to allow water from Hoopes reservoir to be used elsewhere in the county in times of need. These developments combined to undermine any justification for proceeding with the project.
The story of the reservoir had a happy ending in 1984 when DuPont, realizing that the reservoir plans would never come about, generously donated the land it had acquired to the States of Delaware and Pennsylvania to establish the White Clay Creek Preserve. Today, we owe a debt to both the proponents and opponents of the reservoir. The proponents, although unsuccessful in their plans to build a reservoir, succeeded in locking up the land and sparing the White Clay valley the sprawl and development that has afflicted so much of the surrounding area. This land, along with additional land acquired since then, is now being enjoyed for recreational and educational purposes and is providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals.
Jan Kalb attributes the success of the years long campaign to stubbornness. "We were the most stubborn of the people involved, and it payed off". Bob Taylor concurs on the importance of persistence and also cites the willingness to go to "meetings … lots of meetings".