Fish consumption advisory on Darby Creek.
A sign warning against eating fish from Darby Creek is posted at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, which is near the Philadelphia International Airport. Sections of the creek have been found to be polluted with fecal coliform, according to a recent report. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER MELE

Nearly 100 percent of Lower Delaware Basin streams found to be substandard

| May 4, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories exploring water quality in the nine basins in Pennsylvania that are part of the larger Delaware River watershed. How clean are your waterways, Pennsylvania?

Ken Hemphill, an open space activist in Delaware County, Pa., recalled a kayak trip he took on Chester Creek about 10 years ago that he said was a “real eye-opening experience.”

At the start of his trek in Concord Township, Pa., it was not too bad but as he progressed and got south of Brookhaven, Pa., things took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“It was amazing,” he said. “You would see pipes dripping colored liquid into the stream.” 

He said that when he got out of the river, the bottom of his kayak was covered with a yellowish-brown film that did not easily come off. He was concerned about even returning home with the kayak for fear of what he might wash off into his local water supply.

“It was horrible,” he said, adding that though the trip was a decade ago, he doubted much had changed.

In fact, Chester Creek is one of the waterways in the Lower Delaware basin that continues to show signs of trouble, according to a recent water quality report by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The CRC Watersheds Association, a volunteer group that leads activities to promote the health of the Chester, Ridley and Crum Watersheds, describes Chester Creek as an “attractive, winding, and often wooded stream accessible and utilized for many recreational opportunities.”

But it added: “It is also significantly impacted by pollutant discharges to the stream and high levels of polluted runoff from paved areas. The entire watershed is listed as impaired by Pennsylvania DEP.”

Overall, the Lower Delaware basin, which is one of nine in Pennsylvania that contribute to the larger Delaware River watershed, ranked extremely poorly in the DEP report, which found that of 607 miles of streams that were assessed, 98 percent were deemed “impaired.” 

That is, they did not meet at least one of four standards in the federal Clean Water Act because of contaminants, pollution or other substandard conditions. 

The report showed that the Lower Delaware basin, which includes parts of Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties, had 1,700 miles of streams deemed impaired for aquatic life, 230 miles for recreational uses and 174 miles that were off-limits for fish consumption. 

“I’m not surprised but I’m disappointed,” Jaclyn Rhoads, president of the Darby Creek Valley Association, said of the report’s findings. “I didn’t expect any really good numbers.”

She acknowledged that the basin’s streams and rivers have come a long way from the time when they could be set on fire from all the pollutants they had, but said there is still more work to be done to improve water quality.

“Overall, looking at the report, it’s kind of sad,” she said.

Coliform pollution

Notably, out of the whole Delaware River watershed in Pennsylvania, the only place where fecal coliform was cited as a cause of contamination appeared in Darby Creek (4.6 miles) and an unnamed tributary to the creek (3.3 miles). Coliform can be traced to the feces of humans, livestock and wildlife washing into the water.

The findings in those cases meant the waterway was potentially harmful for recreational users. 

Ken Hemphill, an open space activist in Delaware County, Pa., called Darby Creek “essentially a dead stream” because of its pollution. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER MELE

Recreational users are not limited to just those who fish or swim in the creek but also those who paddle or kayak on it because of the risk of contact by being splashed even if they are inside the boats, said Nick Pagon, a clean-water activist and founder of Philadelphia Waterborne.

“There’s no way to assess the river from Philadelphia on south without running into pathogens because of the combined sewer outlets,” Pagon said. In some sewer systems, especially older ones, heavy rains can overwhelm a system’s treatment capacity, allowing untreated waste to be discharged into a waterway.

Pagon said some of the watersheds have seen dramatic improvements, with fish and mussels making a comeback. Those improvements are a far cry from what he recalled as a kid, when some sections of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers were simply “dead zones,” he said.

But concerns about coliform – or E. coli – persist, especially after heavy rains. Figuring out how much rain is too much that might overwhelm combined sewer overflow systems is something still to be better determined.

“We don’t know yet how much rainfall we need to be concerned about,” he said. 

The biggest changes from 2020 to 2022 in the Lower Delaware basin came in Chester and Delaware Counties, in 15 miles of Ridley Creek and 10 miles of an unnamed tributary to the creek.

In both cases, the report said the cause of the contamination in those waterways went from being primarily unknown to being identified mostly as siltation and eutrophication, which is what happens when a water body is overrun with minerals and nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus.

That overload is harmful because it promotes dense plant growth and cuts off oxygen in the water, which can kill fish. The sources of those harmful effects to aquatic life were listed as urban runoff and storm sewers.

Lack of planning and enforcement cited

Developments in the Lower Delaware basin have installed few stormwater measures that would help the Darby Creek, Hemphill said, describing the oversight as “poor upstream planning.”

He said the creek was “essentially a dead stream,” and criticized a lack of regulations or enforcement of existing safeguards to stop the waterways from being harmed.

Local governments have been too quick to surrender to the demands of projects and not aggressive enough in either drafting protective ordinances or taking cases to court to enforce the rules, he added.

“They’re defeated all the time by developers,” he said of local municipalities. “They cave.”

Rhoads agreed.

She faulted a lack of enforcement of existing regulations and noted that even when they are upheld, there can be exemptions carved out for applicants. 

And, she asked, what happens after a project is completed and pesticides are applied, salt is used on roads or car owners change their oil in their driveways, which all pose threats to the streams?

“Where are the rules? Where are the permits regulating all of those things? None,” she said. 

Julie Slavet, executive director of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, said all of the waterways in southeastern Pennsylvania have been impaired for some time.

“Our biggest challenges are runoff (volume and velocity) and combined sewage overflows,” she said. “We believe that many of the impairments have solutions that require political will and funding.”

Hemphill said it was not surprising to see so many streams in Pennsylvania that were found falling short of water-quality standards. (The DEP in its 2022 report found the percentage of impaired streams statewide rose to 33 percent, or to nearly 28,000 miles, from 30 percent in 2020.)

“In our state, our country, we prioritize profit and making money over protecting the environment,” he said. 

Michael Mele contributed reporting.

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.


  1. Suni Best on July 1, 2023 at 5:10 pm

    I landed on this website after having a swimming outing in Darby Creek at Rolling Green Park in Springfield,pa. Two children were with me and were totally submersed in the water, well, up to their necks. After the outing I decided to search for the quality of the water today, 1 July 2023. What is the bottom line for the cleanliness of this stretch of the Darby Creek? State stocks the creek with fish at the opening of fishing season. Should I take that as an indication of clean enough water for swimming? Thank you for all your work and reporting. Sunny

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