27 miles to go: getting the last piece of the Delaware swimmable and fishable

27 miles.

Not that far, really.

About the distance between Philly and Chester.

And in fact, that's exactly the part of the river that we're talking about.

It's the most populous stretch of the river and it's attracting attention from all the people who live along that corridor. These days people are eager to live near it, walk next to it, paddle in it, kayak in it.

Such good news about a river that was once, like 60 years ago, an open sewer that stank to high heaven and nobody had much hope of improving it. A lot has changed in 60 years.

But in this stubborn 27 miles, the river gets really complicated. So it's getting a different sort of attention from a project called "Returning to the River: More People, More Often, More Places."

The idea behind this effort is that sometimes, some stretches of that 27 miles are fine for people to be in it or on it. But sometimes those same stretches can be a problem, largely because of bacteria that cause illnesses in humans; bacteria that get past the various wastewater treatment facilities that dot this section of the river.

It's important to understand that nobody's breaking any laws when that happens.

In the normal functioning of our older wastewater treatment systems (like Philly, Camden and Chester,) the "one pipe" conveyance systems were built to allow the rush of a heavy rainfall to bring that rainwater as well as wastewater out of the urban area and into the river and not to let it back up in people's basements. A good thing, right?

The wastewater processed in the wastewater facilities usually meets goals set and checked relentlessly. In a heavy rain, the system is overwhelmed and some of the "bad stuff" (technical term) can get into the river. In most cases, the river itself can "treat" the wastewater, but it can be a slow process.

These systems are called Combined Sewer Overflows, and it was a really fine idea, when the river was not as inviting as our Delaware has become. Consider too, when these systems were built, there were no cars, no parking lots -- all those impervious surfaces that don't allow that rainwater to soak into the ground.

Now, heavy rains can spell trouble for anyone venturing into the river, although even that isn't true all the time. Give the river some time and its natural processes will remedy the problem.

Added to that, separate storm sewers rush rainwater into a sewer system that always empties untreated rainwater into the river, sweeping through our streets, carrying oil from cars and trucks, garbage, salt from winter roads and soil from everywhere.

Again, it's better than our streets getting flooded.

But, is it really fair that in this stretch, where it could be argued that people need the advantages of a dose of nature, the river is not as available?

"The Delaware is beautiful where I live in Hopewell, N.J. (just north of Trenton,)" says Tim Dillingham, one of the leaders of this project and the executive director of The American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation organization. "But we have a 27-mile stretch where communities can't avail themselves of the benefits of the river."

Urban areas have taken on what he calls, "a disproportionate burden of pollution."

"We need to build on the great work done by the DRBC (Delaware River Basin Commission), and take the next step with an eye to the future of a swimmable, fishable Delaware."

Those are important words: swimmable, fishable. The other 303 miles of the Delaware meet those criteria, which is the goal of the Clean Water Act, which called for all waters in the United States to be fishable and swimmable.

Howard Neukrug, head of the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania, likes to push the goals of the CWA further. "Start with swimmable, fishable and drinkable, and add on safe, attractive, affordable, accessible, equitable and just."

Looked at through this lens, access, water quality and water rates are interconnected and become both an environmental and a social justice issue.

Another member of the leadership team for this project, Andy Kricun, argues that, "the people in Philadelphia, Wilmington or Chester have a right to a river they can walk beside or wade in as much as the people in the Delaware Bay or up in the Water Gap."

Kricun makes the point that the goal is "swimmability, not swimming," recognizing that this stretch of the Delaware has other sorts of challenges: commercial ship traffic, currents from the energetic tides, and underwater obstructions that can catch the unwary off guard.

But, Kricun insists, "Water quality shouldn't be a barrier."

Nathan Boon, from the William Penn Foundation, agrees but notes: "If the water quality is good but there's no one enjoying it, then it's not really swimmable."

"It's not really swimmable if no one's getting wet."

So, though overcoming water quality issues is central to this project, Boon explained that barriers to access include physical infrastructure preventing access to the river as well as cultural barriers, and those play a significant role for communities of color.

"This project is not just in service of the people in the L.L. Bean catalog," he says.

As noted previously, the leadership team includes:

Tim Dillingham has been the executive director of The American Littoral Society since 2003, and the society has worked on many of New Jersey's bays in addition to the Delaware.

Andy Kricun, the former head of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, who now serves as a Senior Fellow with the US Water Alliance, a national nonprofit organization advancing policies and programs that build a sustainable water future.

For this project, he's a senior advisor at the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Karl Russek is director of programs and applied research at the University of Pennsylvania's Water Center. Russek's role in this project is to bring science to the discussion. He has over 25 years of experience in the areas of legacy pollutants, natural resources damage assessment, emerging environmental risks, industry/regulatory interface, and stakeholder management in the United States and globally.

Nathan Boon is the senior program officer for Watershed Protection at the William Penn Foundation, which is one of the thought leaders in the watershed and makes grants to a host of different organizations in pursuit of improving water quality and access for all.

Howard Neukrug, executive director of the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the former commissioner and CEO of Philadelphia Water, where he was responsible for all aspects of utility operations, environmental compliance, engineering, financing, budgeting, capital and strategic planning, customer service, human resources, and legal and policy decisions for its drinking water/wastewater/stormwater system serving 2.3 million people.

Rounding out the senior leadership are Carol Collier, Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University and former executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission and Don Baugh, president of the Upstream Alliance.

It's valuable to see the various backgrounds of the project's leadership team because what's important is their experience and the wide array of stakeholder groups they represent.

In many cases, arguments erupt between environmental advocates and municipal wastewater utilities: One side calling for an end, right now, to all the pollutants that make the river "dirtier," and the other side, the water treatment utilities, which are in the process of building the cleanest river they can, according to Neukrug, but are constrained by the costs of treatment. The money they need has to come, in most cases, from the pockets of the ratepayers, and those pockets are not deep.

But instead of an either/or stalemate, the goal is to find common ground provided by the data collected by science -- the data provided by the Water Center.

As Kricun says "Facts we can agree on."

And the whole conversation will happen under the big umbrella of the ambition of the William Penn Foundation.

So the first step is to collect data. Russek says that there is some useful data already gathered, but that more will likely be needed to pinpoint those places where people congregate and where targeted action will improve the water quality.

It might mean mapping where people congregate; checking the data to see what the bacteria levels are over time in that spot; finding out if there's a Combined Sewer Overflow nearby and checking the tidal action of the river. Then seeing if there are specific, cost-effective solutions that can improve water quality. Then coming up with ways to fund the improvements.

Russek emphasizes that the Water Center's role is not about policy or advocacy: "We are technical."

There has been data collected, especially the boat run data collection from the DRBC, but Russek notes that even that might not be as useful for this project since that tests water in the center channel and the interest here is on, "nearshore testing. To collect data that is closer to sources of pollution, and where less mixing with the rest of the river has occurred."

It isn't part of the plan to tackle all 27 miles, but to isolate places where an impact can be made. Kricun explains that the purpose of the project is to identify low-hanging fruit, areas where improvements can be made at relatively low cost, while recognizing that in some places in this stretch, even small improvements could come with a signifiant price tag.

Then developing various improvements in dozens of spots throughout the 27 miles.

A big job. But much like Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters -- undertaken while Neukrug was in charge -- the goals are significant. For Green City, the time line is 25 years to implement green stormwater infrastructure projects, such as rain gardens and stormwater planters to improve those stormwater outflows into the river -- efforts to slow the water down and let it get absorbed into the land.

Perhaps more of those projects in other communities might be a part of the answer.

Or, perhaps figuring out a way that the wastewater plants can handle more water -- though that's where significant costs arise.

Kricun acknowledged that and talked about the work he did in Camden where in order "to treat the water better, the plant had to be bigger" and the goal was accomplished through low-interest loans from the state. Because of those loans, there was no water-rate increase to pay for the improvements.

"He's (Kricun) such an outside-the-box creative thinker," says Dillingham. "He's cognizant of not creating added burdens. We need to share burdens equitably and benefits equitably.

"We're looking for water quality improvements without a rate burden. We don't want to sink the financial ship," he said.

When there are costs, this project is aiming to figure out ways to finance improvements that don't rely on ratepayers. The vast improvements we've seen in the river in the past 60 years can largely be attributed to the low-cost loans provided by the federal government to build the treatment centers that we have today.

Dillingham pointed to the new Democratic administration in D.C. as a promising sign.

"We are on the cusp of a bigger national perspective. The federal government will assume their obligation in dealing with great rivers like the Delaware.

"(It) will likely look kindly on these attempts, so projects to clean up some stubborn area of the river are coming at the right time."

Dillingham reasons that if people from different "sides" can agree on a set of facts, and then present those facts -- and their agreement -- to funding sources, it will improve chances of getting the money they need for bigger projects.

He explained that "clean rivers are a powerful engine for the rebirth of a city."

Federal dollars that help pay for these sorts of improvements reap rewards when cities -- and the people who live in them -- prosper.

And some of that financial burden will also be borne by the polluters.

"Industry doesn't have a right to pollute," says Dillingham.

"Industry has had a free lunch using the river as an open sewer," Boon says, with cost savings accrued to industry over generations.

So taxes could be another way of funding improvements.

Boon gave an example: Stormwater fees are assessed by addressing the impact that a person or a business has in producing the problem, recognizing that large warehouses or industrial or commercial complexes with acres of asphalt must bear the cost more than a homeowner.

Another distinction, he says: The tax should be borne by the person who is the owner of the property, not the resident.

Clearly, there's lots to talk about. The team has set an ambitious goal of an initial report in June of this year.

Dillingham sums up: "I just think it's really powerful to think pragmatically about next steps and to focus on where we can take pollution out of the water."

For more information, have a look at the slides from the presentation they gave at the DRBC's Water Quality Advisory Committee meeting: You can view them here.

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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