Where the Delaware River flows past South Philadelphia, an unnamed island offers an expansive view of oil storage tanks and a commercial shipyard on the Pennsylvania side, while a procession of jets land at Philadelphia International Airport about two miles away.
But on a warm and sunny summer afternoon, the industrial landscape was of no concern to several families of boaters who had pulled up to the island to laze in the sunshine, wade on a small beach, and swim in a river that was once badly polluted and is still thought of that way by many in the region.
As Jet Skis sped past and other pleasure craft bobbed in the water, the boaters acknowledged the river’s history as an “open sewer” for industrial effluent and human waste, but said they are now sufficiently comfortable with the water’s improved condition to allow their families to swim and play in it.
“We come down on the weekends, anchor up, take a swim,” said John Szumowski, 41, a contractor from Philadelphia, as his daughter floated in a tube a few feet away from his boat. “I have my family out here all the time, and we never have any problems.”
Like other urban rivers in cities such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Portland, Oregon, the Delaware is the focus of efforts by environmental groups and some government entities to build on a decades-long cleanup that is underpinned by the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and to convince a skeptical public that it has a largely neglected recreational asset on its doorsteps.
“We previously turned our backs on the river,” says one activist. “Now, it can be a positive for our community.”
“I see this river now at a tipping point,” said Don Baugh, president of Upstream Alliance, a Maryland-based nonprofit that promotes the public use of natural assets, including the Delaware River. “We previously turned our backs on the river. Now, it can be a positive for our community. Instead of a river that took our waste away, it’s a river that can revitalize us. We can play on it, we can wade in it, we can even swim in it.”
The Delaware River’s recent gains were recognized in April when American Rivers, a national advocacy group, named the Delaware its River of the Year because of improvements in water quality, increasing populations of fish and wildlife, and its status as the longest undammed river in the eastern United States.
The cleanup efforts of nonprofit groups like Baugh’s, as well as some government agencies, are focused on a 27-mile urban stretch of the Delaware that flows from south of Trenton, New Jersey; past Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey; to Chester, Pennsylvania. This section of the Delaware is the only part of the 330-mile-long river that is not designated by the Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate water regulator, for “primary contact” — a federal standard that says the water is safe for users like swimmers and kayakers who come into substantial contact with it.
But the push to clean up the urban stretches of the Delaware is motivated by more than just a desire to make the river consistently usable for public recreation. Environmental groups want local governments, particularly the City of Philadelphia, to impose stricter pollution-control standards to improve water quality — changes that would require tighter controls on sewage overflows and industrial discharges.
Baugh’s efforts include working with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit, and with Camden County to create three access points to the Cooper River, which enters the Delaware River in New Jersey at Camden, just across from Philadelphia. The county’s director of parks, Maggie McCann, said one of those points is Gateway Park, the former site of “seedy hotels and gas stations” that was designated as a park but has not been cleaned up to the extent that the public can gather on its banks and use the Cooper River. When the work is done, she hopes to attract users like UrbanPromise, a Camden-based nonprofit that provides social services for urban youth, who could swim and boat on the Cooper River.
One of the challenges, McCann said, is to overcome a longstanding public belief that the Cooper and Delaware rivers are always badly polluted and should be avoided. “We’re at least a couple of generations removed from where people remember being able to access the water,” she said.
Still, the Delaware is a lot cleaner than it was in the mid-20th century, when decades of industrial pollution and sewage discharge left it so starved of oxygen that fish were unable to migrate farther upstream than central Philadelphia. Now, shad and other species swim through river towns like Lambertville, New Jersey, some 40 miles to the north, on their way to the upper reaches of the Delaware.
The Delaware River cleanup has been significantly advanced by Camden County, which has sharply reduced discharges from its combined sewer overflows (CSOs) — antiquated pipes designed to carry both stormwater and sewage but that often dump both into waterways during heavy rains. Under the 20-year leadership of recently retired executive director Andy Kricun, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) closed eight CSOs and installed netting across the outflows of another 30 to reduce the volume of solids getting into the river during storms.
Kricun, now a senior adviser at the University of Pennsylvania’s Water Center, said he was driven by the knowledge that dumping raw sewage into the river is environmentally disastrous, and by an understanding that improvements could be made at a relatively low cost by building a sewage treatment plant with a low-interest loan from a state fund for public infrastructure. The CCMUA diverted the flow of sewage at 52 municipal plants to the new treatment plant, keeping 15 million gallons of sewage out of the river each day, and reducing fecal coliform levels there by 95 percent, Kricun said. The CCMUA also built “green infrastructure” that controls stormwater by letting it soak into the ground rather than running into storm drains, and created more than 300 “green jobs” for local youth.
THE CCMUA’S work has not completely eliminated the overflows, which are also present in Philadelphia and Chester, explaining why even advocates like Baugh avoid swimming in the river after heavy rains.
But the overall improvement in water quality is prompting advocates for more public use to urge that sections of the river bordering Philadelphia be upgraded to “primary contact” status. At present, the river in Philadelphia is designated for secondary contact, meaning it’s suitable for activities like boating and fishing, where people have limited contact with the water.
The city is concerned that upgrading cleanliness standards would require investments that would lead to higher water rates.
The efforts to achieve “primary contact” are not supported by the region’s biggest water supplier, the Philadelphia Water Department. Laura Copeland, a spokeswoman for the department, said it does not believe that primary contact recreation is appropriate for some parts of the Delaware River near Philadelphia because of water-quality concerns, as well as commercial shipping activity and strong currents.
Copeland noted that the utility is now in the ninth year of “Green City, Clean Waters,” a nationally recognized 25-year program to reduce combined sewer overflows by upgrading pipes and installing green infrastructure such as rain gardens to help stormwater soak naturally into the ground rather than flooding sewers.
Yet the city is concerned that attaining primary contact cleanliness in the Delaware would require additional investments that would lead to higher water rates in an aging system that already needs massive upgrades, said Nathan Boon, senior program officer for watershed protection at the William Penn Foundation, which supports clean water and other causes in the Philadelphia area.
“Three hundred years of deferred infrastructure maintenance and the creation of hundreds of new chemical compounds and potential contaminants every year is no joke,” he said.
Regardless of what the Water Department thinks of water quality in the Delaware, many people are already using it for swimming, Jet-Skiing, and paddleboarding, says Maya K. van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental nonprofit. “Primary contact is the existing use, as we all can witness on any nice day in the estuary,” she said. She urged the public to press state and federal governments to further cut pollution flowing into the Delaware and to upgrade the designation to primary contact.
Around the country, other cities are also seeing more public use of cleaner rivers. In Chicago, the Chicago River has been cleaned up by state and local agencies implementing discharge standards set by the Clean Water Act. Further improvements are sought by advocacy groups like Friends of the Chicago River, which are also trying to persuade people that the water is safe for primary-contact activities, said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the nonprofit.
With an improvement in water quality, she said her group is trying to overcome a cultural aversion to swimming in a river that is widely believed to be just as dirty as it once was. To press their point, Frisbie and a group of elected officials stage an annual “Big Jump” into the river in the hope of persuading the public that it’s a usable recreational asset.
“Because it was designed as part of the sewer system, there’s a cultural barrier in the leadership of the City of Chicago and the municipalities along it,” Frisbie said. “We’re trying to drive change so that people understand.”
Swimming is still banned in the Potomac in Washington, where sewer overflows dump wastewater into the river.
In Washington, D.C., the Potomac River achieves primary contact status about half the time, also thanks to implementation of Clean Water Act standards, said Nancy Stoner, president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit. The city banned swimming in the river starting in the 1980s because of severe pollution then, but the ban persists even though the river is a lot cleaner now, Stoner said. Still, like the Delaware and other urban rivers, the Potomac misses the mark after heavy rains cause combined sewer overflows to dump stormwater and sewage into the river.
The group is finding more people swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, wading, and tubing in the Potomac this summer because the coronavirus pandemic has closed community pools and beaches that would otherwise allow residents to cool off, she said.
“With Covid-19, people are not going places,” she said. “What are they doing? They are finding nature around them is wonderful. We’ve seen more people in the rivers now than ever before because of Covid-19.”
And in Portland, Oregon, the Human Access Project has been encouraging people to swim and boat in the Willamette River — which runs through the heart of the city — for the last 10 years as water quality has improved. That is largely thanks to the Big Pipe Project, an initiative that eliminated all but six of the city’s combined sewer overflows, according to Willie Levenson, leader of the nonprofit.
Over that time, some 25,000 people have used tubes, kayaks, or flotation devices to drift half a mile downriver through the center of Portland in The Big Float, an annual event that raises money and awareness, Levenson said. In July, his group installed eight ladders at a downtown dock, giving swimmers access to the water. “Every little thing you can do to chip away at the existing culture that says you can’t do it, makes the next thing easier,” he said.
Portland’s river cleanup is also supported by Willamette Riverkeeper, which holds annual trash cleanups that usually attract about 1,500 people, said Travis Williams, the group’s executive director. Although the near-elimination of combined sewer overflows has reduced much of the river’s sewage content, it remains tainted by toxics from local industry, he said.
Still, thousands of people have participated in kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding events over the years, helping to promote the group’s goal of expanding public use of the river. “We believe getting all manner of human-powered craft on the river is important, as is access,” Williams said.
Back on the island in Delaware, Szumowski, while acknowledging that the river still has a bad reputation, said it is certainly clean enough these days to swim in it.
“We don’t see much dirty stuff,” he said. “It’s really not bad here. You actually don’t feel like you’re in the Delaware River.”
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the William Penn Foundation.