Fish in the Delaware: canaries in the coal mine

WHAT ARE THE BEST, most reliable and lowest cost water-quality monitors in the Delaware River?


What fish are where can tell anglers and scientists quite a lot about water. Where they choose to propagate, or not, tells even more. Mature fish can deal with adverse conditions better than juvenile fish, and adverse conditions may inhibit the breeding of fish.

Certain fish, like the Atlantic sturgeon, American shad, and striped bass, could be expected in the Delaware River and bay. When their numbers are low, they are advertising problems with the water. It's easy to connect fish having problems with the water to humans having problems.

The Delaware River Basin Commission held a public hearing on April 6, 2017 to gather comments about a proposed resolution that might help the fish – and us.

Here's the resolution.

This map indicates the areas of the Delaware River that are the focus of the proposed DRBC resolution: Zones 3, 4 and the upper segment of Zone 5. Basically that’s the stretch of river from Philadelphia, Pa. to Wilmington, Del.COURTESY DRBC

The resolution proposes: "In close collaboration with member states, EPA regions 2 and 3, and municipal and industrial dischargers both public and private, DRBC will conduct a study to determine the attainability of potential dissolved oxygen criteria in Water Quality Zones 3 and 4 and the upper regions of Zone 5."

There's a bit of water-resource management speak in that snippet. First the geography: It ranges from the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge upstream of Philadelphia, Pa., down to the mouth of the Christina River, in Wilmington, Del.

And dissolved oxygen? Just like us, fish need oxygen. The fact that water contains oxygen in its makeup (remember chemistry class? H2O?) doesn't help the fish. They need free-floating oxygen, called dissolved oxygen. DO is scarce in polluted waters.

There are a host of chemical processes going on in the cleanest of water. Aquatic plants grow in the summer months then die off and decay. That decay is a process that affects the water. As in everything to do with the environment, there's a balancing act going on – some growth and decay is normal, and the river adjusts. Some – as when there's too much fertilizer washed into the river, accelerating plant growth – puts the process out of balance and like dominoes that affects other life.

In that case, the amount of dissolved oxygen is reduced by the bacterial process of decay. In the lower river and bay, the greater concern is the amount of oxygen used when treated wastewater and industrial waste gets discharged into the river. Those discharges are regulated by the DRBC.

We need to back up a little to get a historical perspective. The Delaware River, as far back as Colonial times, was used as a dumping ground for all manner of noxious stuff. Animal and human waste went directly into the water as did byproducts of manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution wasn't kind to the river, neither were the shipbuilding activities of World War II.

By the 1950s and 60s, "Little or no dissolved oxygen was present in a 30-mile reach of the Delaware River Estuary from Wilmington to Philadelphia for periods of up to six months each year, preventing the survival of resident fish and the passage of anadromous (migratory) fish through these water." (the resolution reads)

That was bad for the fish and bad for people, too.

Let Steve Tambini, the executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, tell the story:

The severe pollution in the tidal Delaware River, especially around its urban centers, was one of the major reasons President John F. Kennedy and the four state governors signed the Delaware River Basin Compact into law that created the Delaware River Basin Commission in 1961, nine years before the first Earth Day. DRBC is the federal/interstate government agency responsible for managing the basin's water resources without regard to political boundaries.

DRBC began regulating sources of water pollution and put waste dischargers on a "pollution diet" in 1967, several years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established. Thanks to DRBC's early efforts and the work of many others to implement the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, the once "pollution blocked" portions of the Delaware River are alive today with diverse aquatic species, including the celebrated American shad and the endangered Atlantic sturgeon.

For more about the river's success story, check out Tambini's column from last week at Lehigh Valley Live.

Though the shad and sturgeon are back, their numbers aren't as strong as they could be.

Many ardent fans of the river say there's been enough study – it's time to do something.

This resolution isn't calling for a change to the requirements for how much pollution is put into the river. Rather it's calling for a study. Another study.

Some of the people at the hearing think there have been enough studies:

"I'm a person that loves the Delaware River," said Tony Saldutti from Bethlehem, an angler. "I'd like to see more action and less study. We put a man on the moon in less time than we've wasted on studies.

"We're not doing what we need to do to make it a world-class river," he said. "They (the significant polluters) need to make the water they put back into the river just as good as the water they take out.

"Please stop studying."

Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper, holds a box full of files prepared by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network to make the case that action, not study is what the river, and its fish, need." MEG McGUIRE PHOTO

The Delaware Riverkeeper, Maya van Rossum agreed wth that point of view. She brought a box full of files to support the assertion that there have been plenty of studies, She, too, urged action to support the fish that already use this section of the river.

Despite the significant progress that's been made to improve many aspects of the river, the dissolved oxygen criteria for the troubled section of the river has remained unchanged since 1967.

Through this resolution, the DRBC wants "to recognize the significant water quality improvements in the Delaware River Estuary and provide for a formal review of the designated aquatic life uses and water quality criteria necessary to support these uses."

It needs to be said that the DRBC's way of doing things looks to engage industry and municipalities (the most significant "legal" polluters) and not alienate them, preferring a slow, steady improvement rather than looking for quicker routes that could lead to litigation and stalemate.

One of its partners in the work of taking care of the estuary is the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.  It partnered in one of those studies.

Its executive director, Jennifer Adkins wrote in an e-mail, where she outlined the PDE's neutral stance on this proposal and added:

"There are a diversity of perspectives on this matter and how exactly to achieve the right balance. One thing we can all agree on is how remarkable it is that water quality in the Delaware River has improved to the point where this discussion is needed and possible. That's thanks to the success of Clean Water Act programs, many of which have been proposed for funding cuts (including the National Estuary Program.) "

One of the significant supporters of the resolution is a group that's called the Delaware Estuary TMDL Coalition. TMDL refers to the Total Maximum Daily Load, which is the amount that can be discharged – according to DRBC regulations – into the estuary.

The members of the Delaware Estuary TMDL Coalition include:

  • Calpine Corporation; Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority
  • City of Philadelphia Water Department
  • Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority (DELCORA)
  • The Chemours Company FC, LLC
  • Exelon Generation Company, LLC
  • National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)
  • PBF Energy
  • Delaware City Refining Company LLC and Paulsboro Refining Company LLC
  • Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining and Marketing, LLC
  • PSEG Power LLC, PSEG FossilLLC, and PSEG Nuclear LLC
  • Rohm and Haas Company and Rohm and Haas Chemicals LLC.

These are the municipalities and industries that are likely to incur significant costs when the next set of regulations are set. It should also be noted that in some cases, taxes for the municipalities could go up to accommodate new standards. That's never popular with voters.

And in the other cases, some of these industries employ many residents of the watershed. It's would be hard to speculate the exact impact of new costs on these industries ability to keep the employees they have. It could be an impetus for them to look elsewhere to locate their businesses. Those are surely considerations for the four states/governors who are the commissioners of the DRBC.

When the first set of standards were enacted back in the 60s, controversy erupted because the cost to the various municipalities and industries to address their discharges would be, they said, prohibitively expensive.

But over time, that's exactly what's happened. They have addressed those discharges and water conditions have improved. Taking the next step will be tricky.

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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