An expedition of naturalists and students kayaks up the Cooper River last month.

An expedition of naturalists and students kayaks up the Cooper River last month. David Harp

Urban Waters: Discovering the Hidden Beauty of a Jersey River

Flowing through hard-pressed Camden, New Jersey’s Cooper River was long abused and ignored by area residents. Now, following the example of other urban restoration efforts, a campaign is underway to encourage more use of the Cooper and an appreciation of its natural assets.

In southern New Jersey’s heavily urbanized Camden County, the Cooper River winds past factories, under interstate highway bridges, and over dams built long ago to drive mills or control water flow. The few people who brave paddling up the river by kayak or canoe are greeted by the noise of cars and trains and must occasionally dodge discarded tires, TVs, and other debris left by those who for years treated the river as the trash-filled sewer it once was. Opportunities to launch boats are limited to a few steep banks and muddy beaches.

Like many U.S. urban waterways, the 16-mile Cooper River was long ignored and abused, but it is now the focus of a campaign to alert the public to the existence of a recovering natural gem flowing through the heart of this South Jersey landscape. The river’s assets, as discovered by a recent expedition along the length of the river, include bald eagles, herons, foxes, beavers, fish, and various insects and plants, all showing that reports of its biological death are greatly exaggerated.

Beneath a dam about halfway up the river, scientists censused more than 100 fish from 10 species in less than half an hour by temporarily stunning them with an electric current. And in a marshy forest bordering the Cooper, a member of the team found a ragged fringed orchid, a delicate bog-dwelling plant that was an unexpected discovery near three now-remediated Superfund sites in America’s most densely populated state.

Using electrofishing backpacks, fisheries expert Dave Keller (right) and his colleagues collect samples of fish and crustaceans.

Using electrofishing backpacks, fisheries expert Dave Keller (right) and his colleagues collect samples of fish and crustaceans. David Harp

A shifting cast of around 15 naturalists, filmmakers, high school students, and a local government official spent an improbable six days last month kayaking and hiking along the river from its mouth on the Delaware River at Camden to its source at a pond near the suburban town of Lindenwold. The goal of the expedition was to highlight the existence of a natural haven in a heavily developed region where many residents know little or nothing about the river.

Fifty years after the passage of the federal Clean Water Act, which led to significantly better water quality in the Cooper and many other urban rivers, the expedition also aimed to generate the public and political will to bring about more use of the river and an appreciation of its natural richness.

The trip was the latest stage in a campaign that has already generated $500,000 in federal funds for the creation of a water trail along part of the river, $400,000 in Camden County money to design a community marina and three other new access points, and plans this summer to seek more federal support to clean up a beach near the river’s mouth on the north side of Camden.

Advocates want the public to know that the river’s non-tidal section is no longer fouled by the water-treatment plants that once resulted in sewage making up a third of the river’s flow. They also hope to build support among property owners, some of whom are reluctant to allow access to sections of the river that run through their land. The Cooper campaigners aim to match the success of other urban river cleanups, such as those in New York City and Los Angeles, which have seen increased use by kayakers, bikers, and bird watchers following their makeover in recent decades.

An onlooker watches from a bridge as the expedition paddles on the Cooper River.

An onlooker watches from a bridge as the expedition paddles on the Cooper River. David Harp

Last month’s expedition, dubbed the “Search for the Cooper River,” was organized by Upstream Alliance, a Maryland-based nonprofit that works to reconnect people with nature. The participants included four local teenagers who may have previously sailed or fished in the tidal portion of the river but knew nothing about its increasingly natural stretch farther upstream.

“You take people out and they say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is here in our backyard,’” said Maggie McCann, director of the Camden County Parks Department, and co-leader of the trip. “I’d love us to get to a place with future generations where it’s not so shocking that it’s here.”

Bella Morton, 13, one of the young participants, said she had only previously known a stretch of the river near her home in North Camden and was surprised by the variety of nature she had seen elsewhere along the river.

“There are a lot more animals around that I didn’t know about,” she said. “On the first day, people saw foxes. We saw a beaver swimming around. I had no idea that there were special types of birds around we saw bald eagles and a bunch of other huge birds.”

Dave Keller shows a crayfish to Andrew Coleman and Bella Morton, both 13.

Dave Keller shows a crayfish to Andrew Coleman and Bella Morton, both 13. David Harp

Her perceptions were echoed by Anand Varma, a National Geographic photographer who documented fishes, reptiles, plants, and insects on the trip. “I was shocked to see the abundance and diversity of life by the time we got to the upstream areas,” he said. “There were areas where you had to be careful where you put your foot because there were so many little baby frogs hopping all over the forest floor.”

In another unexpected sign of how the water in the river’s upper reaches had improved, the party found stoneflies, aquatic insects that do not tolerate pollution. Stef Krol, an independent aquatic entomologist, said she had not expected to find the flies because of the nature of the riverbed and the high degree of urbanization all the way to the river’s source, but welcomed them as a sign of “excellent” water quality.

The 1972 Clean Water Act led to a reduction in the Cooper River’s bacteria load by about 95 percent and allowed many of its natural communities to recover, said Scott Schreiber, executive director of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, which is responsible for the county’s sewage treatment plants.

While the non-tidal section of the river is much cleaner than it was, it’s still polluted by phosphorous from lawn fertilizer, stormwater runoff from paved areas such as streets and parking lots, and bacteria from the droppings of Canada geese that crowd its banks. Many contaminants get washed into the water during rainstorms such as one that doused the expedition on its second day, producing a conspicuous foamy outflow from one storm drain.

The expedition wades through a tunnel near Interstate-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike.

The expedition wades through a tunnel near Interstate-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike. David Harp

Part of the solution, Schreiber said, could be the widespread adoption of green infrastructure such as rain gardens that allow rain to soak naturally into the ground, filtering out contaminants before they reach the river.

But the tidal area through the City of Camden is still challenged by combined sewer overflows (CSOs) — old drains that mix stormwater with raw sewage, which overflow into waterways and even streets during heavy rains. If it had rained on the expedition’s trip through the tidal zone, the party would almost certainly have paddled through CSO outflows, Schreiber said. Camden’s CSOs, like those in 20 other New Jersey cities, are now the target of a proposed state control plan.

The Cooper River is at an early stage of restoration that is already well underway in some other U.S. cities. Along the Los Angeles River, for example, city officials have been building walking trails and bike paths since the 1980s, producing an overwhelmingly positive public response, said Michael Affeldt, director of LARiverWorks, a city-run revitalization program. “There’s this latent demand that’s instantly apparent once we build something like a trail or a bike path,” Affeldt said.

The 51-mile Los Angeles River was never the sewer that its New Jersey cousin was, but both have the potential to be natural havens in heavily urbanized areas. Some sections of the California waterway are “absolutely brimming with life,” including birds, fish, and insects, Affeldt said.

An eastern amberwing dragonfly rests on a lily pad in the Cooper River.

An eastern amberwing dragonfly rests on a lily pad in the Cooper River. David Harp

In New York City, the Bronx River, the city’s only freshwater river, has also been subject to restoration efforts and improved public access, and this year recorded its first bald eagle in at least 20 years, indicating that the fish population was robust enough to attract the bird, according to the nonprofit Bronx River Alliance.

Victoria Toro, the alliance’s community outreach coordinator, said some communities along the 23-mile river didn’t even know that a river existed beneath the piles of debris that they thought was a landfill. But there is now growing interest in its ecology from scientists and schools, and more demand from people who want to fish its waters or hike along its banks, she said.

The Chicago River, too, was historically a haven for wildlife despite being heavily polluted in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is now seeing increasing biodiversity as its water quality improves, said John Quail, director of policy and conservation for Friends of the Chicago River, an advocacy group. In a new sign of a cleaner environment, otters have returned to the river to feed on its healthy fish populations.

Standing on the bank of the Cooper River, Dave Keller, head of the fisheries department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, called the waterway an “improving stream” with “middle-of-the-pack quality.” The number and types of fish caught by his team using electro-stunning showed that the river’s water quality, though improved over the last half-century, isn’t yet up to standards found in less developed areas, he said.

Members of the expedition paddle though rain.

Members of the expedition paddle though rain. David Harp

On his riverside lawn in Voorhees Township, Don Van Artsdalen, 75, said the river is more prone to flooding than it has been in the 73 years he has lived at the property. He now has to lift his outdoor benches on to a picnic table to stop them being washed away in storms. Van Artsdalen blames the flooding on runoff from an increasing area of paved surface in the river’s watershed.

The Cooper’s water quality “has come a long way, but it is no way what it was when I was little,” he told the party.

Advocates say improved public access to the river would help to protect nature. But it could also backfire if it results in more litter or destruction, argued Jermaine Brown, 17, one of the young expeditioners. After five days paddling or wading the river, using machetes to hack through thorny brush, and struggling through knee-deep swamps, Brown said he had been surprised by the increasing profusion of nature and found himself wanting to protect it by limiting public access such as ramps for kayaks.

“I look at the river completely differently now,” he said. “I just thought it was a normal waterway. Now that I see how it is affected by things that happened in the past, like sewage treatment plants and runoff, I think we should treat it with more respect.”

Jermaine Brown (left) examines a crayfish with Jaycel Santos.

Jermaine Brown (left) examines a crayfish with Jaycel Santos. David Harp

Any move to increase public access may run into opposition from people like Stephen Risley, who owns land near the source pond in the borough of Gibbsboro. Meeting the expedition party at their journey’s end, Risley welcomed plans to protect the river, but said he often removes trash dumped by unwanted visitors driving off-road vehicles, and fears many more will come if public access is improved.

“You guys have very good intentions, but a lot of people don’t,” he told the group.We’ve spent years and years getting it back [to where it is now,] so we’re a little hesitant to welcome people back here.”

Upstream Alliance President Don Baugh, who led the expedition, said he had long hoped to run such a trip up the Cooper River since being “blown away” by its hidden beauty on an earlier visit. He said he was pleased that he had found a group with enough stamina for the six-day trip.

“I’m exhilarated that we were able to make it the whole way up here, and that we are able to tell the story so that hopefully many more people will be able to do what we did,” he said.