By Tim Dillingham, Executive Director of the American Littoral Society
An explosion of people enjoying the water in kayaks, jet skis, paddle boards, tubes or just taking a dip is the result of recent improvements in water quality in the mainstem estuary of the Delaware River in the vicinity of Philadelphia, PA and Camden NJ. This exciting change demonstrates that the combination of actions by the Delaware River Basin Commission, federal, state and local agencies, citizens and clean water utilities to reduce pollution makes a difference! This improvement was celebrated this spring when American Rivers named the Delaware River its National River of the Year for 2020.
In the time following that award, the Coronavirus crisis has changed how we are thinking about getting together and living our lives. We are finding that the outdoors is the place to destress and recharge after all the different challenges that we are facing, from the pandemic and ensuing economic impacts to the movement for black lives and the struggle for racial justice.
People are taking solace in outdoor places and that includes our majestic
Delaware River waterfront, the focus of a recent and rare opportunity for an in-person and Covid-safe conversation.
Bordered between New Jersey and New York, the waterfronts of Philadelphia and Camden have been in the news a lot recently, highlighting the re-development activity that the water quality improvements in this 27-mile stretch of water are making possible.
On Tuesday, October 20, this improvement was evidenced at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing. Looking over my shoulder I saw Spruce Harbor Park and along the waterfront trail, people walking, jogging and enjoying the waters edge. The ability to see the water is a wonderful amenity, one not to be undervalued. However, our communities’ appreciation for the water goes well beyond the nice views. John Brady, CEO of the ISM, quantified the “up close” interest by noting that 15,000 people went out on the water in swan boats and kayaks with the Seaport Museum in 2019!
The purpose of my most recent trip to Penn’s Landing was the opportunity to meet in person, in a socially distanced and Covid correct fashion pursuant to Philadelphia guidelines, to talk about a new project, Returning to the River. Tag-lined “More People, More Times, More Places,” the goal of the project is to develop feasible and affordable “road map” to provide more water access to local communities along the Delaware River, without impacting the user rates of those communities, leading to opportunities for swimming, wading, and paddling, in the Philadelphia/Camden/Chester areas of the Delaware River.
We were fortunate that Mike Carroll, Deputy Managing Director for Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, & Sustainability, Maggie McCann, Director, Camden County Parks and Recreation and Nathan Boon, Senior Program Officer, William Penn Foundation were able to gather with the leaders of the Returning to the River project to share observations and offer advice at this early stage of the project to support effective partnership between both government and non-governmental organizations.
We settled into chairs placed 6 feet apart on the ISM docks and tested the walkie talkies provided by Upstream Alliance to ensure both social distancing and clear communication. Karl Russek, Director of Programs and Applied Research, The Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania, kicked the briefing off by describing the project goals of gathering and analyzing data about the river’s current state and identifying possible ways to improve water quality in targeted areas in order to make the water safe for swimming.
Andy Kricun, Senior Advisor, The Water Center at Penn reminded us that, thanks to the work of the Delaware River Basin Commission federal, state and local governments, citizens and clean water utilities like Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and the Camden County Municipal Utility Authority (CCMUA), much of this section of the River currently meets water quality standards for swimming, especially during days without recent rainfall.
Reinforcing the project goal of identifying cost-effective ways to achieve water quality improvements without impacting the rates of customers on either side of the river, he brought to our attention Philadelphia’s innovative and equitable adoption of a scaled stormwater fee to make sure that ordinary ratepayers don’t bear the burden of the stormwater pollution generated by owners of large areas of impervious surface.
Continuing with specific examples, he noted the judicious use in Camden of the State Revolving Fund (NJ Infrastructure Bank in NJ and PennVest in Philadelphia) to achieve stormwater and raw sewage pollution reductions without raising rates.
He also stressed the possibilities to provide more equitable use of this section of the River through the regulatory commitments already in place by sequencing pollution reduction measures and through innovation and new technology.
We were lucky to have a beautiful fall day to head out in two Upstream Alliance skiffs to see first-hand the evolving waterfronts in Philadelphia and Camden, providing a compelling vantage to get sense of what is possible. Don Baugh, President and Founder, Upstream Alliance, and captain of our boat, navigated past key sites where our walkie talkies provided the capacity to share information for those safely distanced across two boats. As usual, he obtained fishing reports from those we passed, white perch, yellow perch, stripers, and the obligatory monster catfish!
Traveling past the Durst Organization’s properties, we learned of exciting plans for development and redevelopment, billion-dollar projects building condos and shopping centers, really important for the rate base for our cities in Philadelphia and Camden, for jobs and overall prosperity.
Not everyone is going to be able to see their property values increase or get a job in one of the new buildings or commercial shopping centers, but by adhering to the vision for the Master Plan for the Central Delaware, all can benefit through the plan’s focus on public access to the waterfront and the creation of new greenspaces.
Residents in Philadelphia and Camden, regardless of their means, deserve accessto free, safe public space to reflect, recharge, to seek refuge in times of challenge,in crisis like today, to do so in a socially distanced and Covid safe manner.
Having outdoor spaces and the amenities and the refuge that they provide is just as important as the economic development.
Passing Graffiti Pier, we learned that seven acres that includes the pier will become a public park administered by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, to ensure the public can benefit from what is now Philadelphia’s number one Instagram site. Further upriver, adjacent to Tioga Marine Terminal, was Pulaski Park where a fisherman reported he caught striped bass, perch, bass and crappie, all this morning!
Camden County Parks Director Maggie McCann welcomed us to the Delaware River’s Back Channel and described the progress in restoring Petty’s Island, a heavily industrialized site, to a park being transformed by the NJ Natural Lands Trust to a haven for people and the feathered travelers of the Atlantic Flyway.
We passed the Cramer Hill Nature Preserve where we learned from Andy Kricun, previously Executive Director of Camden County’s sewage treatment authority, that the authority was able to eliminate eight of Camden’s 38 raw sewage discharge points and put solids screening and removal systems on the remaining 30, all without raising rates. This was done by taking out a low interest, long term loan from the NJ Infrastructure Bank (the NJ analog of PA’s PennVest fund). The capture of thousands of tons of solids that used to be discharged into the Delaware River during rain events, resulted in significant improvement to the water quality. Camden County also used the NJ Infrastructure Bank to construct green infrastructure throughout Camden, including the aforementioned Cramer Hill Nature Preserve.
It was noted that both Philadelphia and Camden had implemented innovative approaches to dealing with the challenges of combined sewer overflows. Philadelphia is nationally renowned for its innovative green infrastructure program and its use of a stormwater fee to reduce rate impacts on its customers. Camden has implemented netting systems at the end of its CSO outfalls to reduce water quality impact and used the State Revolving Fund program to reduce impacts to its ratepayers.
Passing the Pyne Poynt Park, I reflected on watching this site come alive to the adjacent Spanish-speaking community seeing all their active use with jet skis and family picnics, and how we need to welcome them into the conversation about public access and water quality.
Sadler’s Poynt Park, adjacent to Pyne Poynt, will soon undergo a $5 million transformation from vacant lot to a park focused on the waterfront with trails and a dock.
The Upstream Alliance skiffs demonstrated the proximity between Camden and Philadelphia by transporting us back to the ISM docks on schedule to continue the discussion focused the critical issues of financing and stakeholder engagement. Verna Harrison, Principal, Verna Harrison Associates, LLC led us back to our socially distanced chairs for the remaining discussion.
Ellen Kohler, Program Director of Water Resources, Environmental Finance Center, at the University of Maryland described work to revisit the financial sustainability of the City of Philadelphia’s Green City Clean Water program (GCCW), running through 2036. The Green City Clean Water program focuses on reducing the amount of stormwater and raw sewage discharging untreated from the City's sewers into the area’s waterways by putting in green stormwater projects. Balancing all of the water challenges in the City is a challenge, and a sophisticated financial approach is essential to put these important improvements to water quality and quality life within reach, without breaking the bank.
I am glad that we have partners in the Environmental Finance Center, Moonshot Missions, the US Water Alliance, and other entities who are focusing on innovative ways to finance and resource the remediation.
To reinforce the commitment to equity and inclusion, as one of the leaders of the Returning to the River project, I spoke about the need to engage many organizations, users, and government officials … but especially the people who live in communities along the River, many that may be underserved, may not even think about connecting with River, or have been raised to consider it is a threat, harmful, and hazardous. Noting that the project is still in its early stages, it is important that we stress the commitment to ensure that opportunities are provided for people to help shape its outcome. Both Verna and Steve Jandoli, Policy Advocate, American Littoral Society, are working with me to make this commitment a reality.
Carol Collier, Sr. Advisor, Watershed Management & Policy, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel, ably summarized the points of the day, reminding that we should not think that there will be one big immediate solution for restoring the 27 miles and that this project starts with a focus on specific areas where there is current use for primary recreation or an opportunity to provide it to make a difference through feasible and affordable solutions.
In sum, she states: What is needed? What are the gaps? How much work will it take to work in different parts of the river? How can we work with stakeholders to find best ways to move forward.
While it may take a number of years to complete all the work that is required to achieve the water quality we desire, there are definitely a number of things that can be done sooner rather than later, and in a cost-effective way, so that greater access to the Delaware and its tributaries can be provided to the communities that need it most, without adversely impacting their financial security.
While not a new adage, I share Carol’s concluding point that we should not be looking at the economy versus the environment. Instead, as she says in the spirit of today’s tour, we must advance a “rising tide” that “floats all boats. “If we are going to have a strong economy, we must have strong environment.”
I left feeling refreshed, appreciative of being able to experience nature’s capacity to bring calm and peace. The benefits of these experiences for the communities in Philly, Chester and Camden, well back from the waterfronts edge, and the investments that will help green our communities and reconnect more people to our waterways, will enable “more people, more times, in more places” to share this feeling.