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PennFuture Petitions DRBC to Recognize Primary Contact Recreation on the Mainstem Delaware River

Fifty years ago, the lower stem of the Delaware River was a flowing wasteland. Around Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington, the river was a dump for the region’s wastewater treatment plants, chemical facilities and slaughterhouses.

Fortunately for all of us, the Clean Water Act of 1972 has resulted in significant progress restoring the river to its natural state. Aquatic life is thriving, with species such as shad and striped bass on the rise. People are looking towards the lower Delaware River once again as a place to recreate in and on.

To continue this progress, PennFuture and a coalition of organizations submitted a petition on Monday to the Delaware River Basin Commission to upgrade the regulatory status of a portion of the lower Delaware River, initiating a process for commissioners to fulfill their legal obligation to protect human health and to advance the water quality standards of the Delaware River.

Upgrading the regulatory status of the urbanized, lower Delaware River — specifically, from River Mile 108, where Pompeston Creek flows from Palmyra, New Jersey, to River Mile 81.8 near the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester, Pennsylvania — would help ensure the health and safety of all who spend recreational time on the river.

For years we’ve known community members use this section of the Delaware River for direct contact recreation – such as jet skiing and kayaking, swimming, stand-up paddleboarding and tubing, to name a few. This “primary contact” water sports are likely to result in the ingestion of or immersion in the water (even if accidental).

But this section is currently being protected by the DRBC for “secondary contact” which means current regulations only require water quality to be good enough for activities like fishing from the shoreline, where immersion is not likely.

To be sure, because this section of the Delaware is actually being used for primary contact water recreation, the DRBC and surrounding states are legally required to recognize this and to protect it under the Clean Water Act.

Our DRBC petition is an effort to update regulations to reflect the 21st century realities of the Delaware River and to ensure water quality is protective of our health. Several examples of “primary contact,” where recreational users are in direct contact with the river and may potentially ingest water, are mentioned in the petition. Examples include:

  • Every day in the summer, campers ages 6-12 ride kayaks on the Delaware River through activities run by Independence Seaport Museum and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. Altogether, Independence Seaport Museum leads more than 20,000 people of all ages on river-based activities throughout the year.
  •          UrbanPromise, in partnership with Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum, offers programming for Camden middle and high school students that teaches them how to build their own wooden boats. Every school year, more than 70 students build and test their paddleboats, canoes and kayaks on the tidal Cooper River and Delaware River backchannel.
  •          At Penn’s Landing Marina, wellness organization Aqua Vida has partnered with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation to host stand-up paddleboard tours, floating paddleboard yoga and other floating fitness and meditation classes on the river. The classes attract as many as 400 participants each summer.

Recognizing that the water quality of the lower Delaware has significantly improved over recent decades, PennFuture and our partners are looking at the river through a new lens. In order to ensure that we can enjoy the river safely, it is imperative for the DRBC to protect it fully as required by the Clean Water Act.

Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be reaching out to our members and the public asking you to let the DRBC know that you support this upgrade of the lower Delaware River. We hope that you will be part of this effort to protect our health as we enjoy the Delaware River to its fullest.

Please also consider becoming a member of PennFuture to support us as we fight to protect the health of our communities and our environment.

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