Delaware River
Delaware River looking towards the Walt Whitman Bridge. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Draft of DRBC’s plan to clean the Delaware is finally here

| September 30, 2022

As with so many documents from the Delaware River Basin Commission, the title of the Draft Attainability Report released on Friday does not give any indication of what this could mean for the Delaware River. Its official title is: Aquatic Life Designated Use Analysis of Attainability Report. It is a review of how we can make our river cleaner and get closer to the Clean Water Act’s ambitious goal: to make all the waters of the United States “swimmable and fishable.”

Right now, most of the river is swimmable and fishable but a stubborn section in the urban watershed from Philadelphia to Wilmington is not.

Aside from what this goal would mean for us humans using the river, it is also incumbent on the DRBC — remember that is the four states and the federal government — to improve the standards for fish, especially for an endangered species, the Atlantic sturgeon.

As an adult, sturgeon can survive where the oxygen level in the water is on the low side. It’s the young sturgeon that are threatened by low oxygen. In fact, it’s the endangered status of sturgeon that was the impetus to this study and the possible change in designated aquatic life use. 

The “attainability” referenced in the title refers to what is the highest attainable dissolved oxygen improvement, requiring changes to how wastewater is treated.

This paragraph is from the Executive summary and it’s the result of five years work and recommends the change:

The Commission should proceed with rulemaking to add fish propagation as a designated use within the reach of the Estuary currently designated for fish maintenance, and that it should adopt revised DO water quality criteria that support the new use.

It has been a long five years, but there was lots to do.

Here is the resolution from 2017, which set out the date of completion as “within 3.5 years from the effective date of this Resolution,” which would have made it March 2021.

And here is the update from September 2020 that changed the due date to September 2022, in light of a host of complications, not the least of them Covid.

And here is the opening paragraph of the resolution:
A RESOLUTION to recognize that evidence supports further study on the inclusion of
propagation as a designated use in Zones 3 and 4 and the upper portion of Zone 5 of the Delaware River Estuary; to provide for such studies to be undertaken in consultation with co-regulators and dischargers; and to direct the Executive Director to initiate DRBC rulemaking to revise the designated aquatic life uses consistent with the results of the identified studies and the objectives and goals of the federal Clean Water Act.

Here’s a map of the zones referenced in the resolution:

InterstateZones-MainStem-Counties DC

So that this list of designated uses will make sense:

Aquatic Life DRBC DC

You see how much of the river has a designated use of “maintenance and propagation of resident fish and other aquatic life”?

Now look at the urban area. The designated use there is only maintenance and not propagation. That’s the attainability that this report — still in draft form — is focused on. But the draft suggests that it should be changed and upgraded.

The report and that five years of work is really focused on the oxygen in the river, dissolved oxygen.

Most of the river has a good supply of oxygen, but there is a problem when you get to the most urban areas — and it is us.

It is the way we’re treating our sewage. Back in the ’50s and previously, the river was a stinky mess with untreated sewage going directly into the river. Then with some money from state and federal funds, wastewater treatment plants were built all over the river and the first target for treatment was — sorry to be blunt — our poop.

The thought back then was that the river itself could take care of our pee — ammonia. And it did for a while. The river is certainly a lot cleaner than it was back then.

But as the population grew, the river had a hard time keeping up. Now, in the urban area, there is a problem with available oxygen in hot summer months for fish propagation.

Here is a series of stories that we did when this problem was first being addressed in 2017: The first explains how the river can — and cannot — deal with ammonia.

The second explains how this is a problem that likely needs action from the big wastewater treatment plants, like Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington.

The last in the series talks about the computer modeling of the bay from Trenton, N.J., south:

That last one talks about the “complex computer modeling” that needed to be done in order to figure out what sort of extra work has to be done by the various wastewater treatment facilities that do their work in this urban corridor.

And in case you haven’t realized, better treatment of our wastewater means upgrades on those wastewater treatment plants — and that means spending big bucks. Money that consumers might have to pay in higher prices for the improved treatment for wastewater, unless, once again, the state and the federal government step in.

That is why when the modeling was done, back in May, it was a really big deal:

Here is the link to the draft report, this and some of the links should keep you in reading material all weekend:

Delaware Currents will be doing another story on this next week, looking at the impacts to the river and to the various wastewater treatments facilities affected by this recommendation.

Meg McGuire

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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