PennFuture Blog

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Show Your Support for Our Delaware River Fish Protection Petition!

by Austin Grace, Legal Intern

Earlier this year, PennFuture and our partners submitted a supplemental petition to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) seeking immediate upgrade of the designated use of a portion of the mainstem Delaware River to protect fish and aquatic life, especially Atlantic sturgeon. The purpose of the Delaware River Fish Protection Petition is to upgrade the designated uses of Zone 3, Zone 4, and a portion of Zone 5 of the Delaware River to include and protect the existing aquatic life uses.

Based on the evidence, the current existing use is the “maintenance and propagation of resident fish and other aquatic life” and “spawning and nursery habitat for migratory fish.” These are technical terms under the applicable clean water regulations that recognize and require a certain higher level of water quality to protect these uses. 

The federal Clean Water Act states that the designated use should match the existing  vuse. Designated uses describe the attainable condition and are regulations promulgated through a rulemaking process. Existing uses describe the current condition of a water body. If designated use does not match the current existing use in the Delaware River, it could lead to harm to aquatic life and the surrounding communities. (For a bit more on designated and existing uses in Pennsylvania, check out this Our Pocono Waters video.)  For additional background on the history of dissolved oxygen in the urban stretches of the Delaware River and the legal requirements surrounding designated uses in the River, please take a look at this webinar.

In 2013, Delaware River Keeper Network and other associations submitted an initial petition to the DRBC, urging it to recognize the emerging data that fish are now spawning in all zones of the Delaware Estuary. The Delaware River’s genetically unique population of Atlantic sturgeon is also on the brink of extinction. Every summer, there is a decrease in dissolved oxygen levels, leading to reproductive failures for the fish in the river and will lead to extinction as indicated by a 2018 DRBC report.

Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen that is present in the water and therefore available for fish. Oxygen dissolves by diffusion from the surrounding air; aeration of water that has tumbled over falls and rapids; and as a waste product of photosynthesis. Fish and aquatic animals cannot split oxygen from water or other oxygen-containing compounds, making dissolved oxygen vital for their survival. Furthermore, there was a decrease in dissolved oxygen as indicated by both the Chester and Ben Franklin sensor, showing a lack of updated protections to prevent backsliding and lethal conditions from occurring in the Delaware River.  

Accomplishing the upgrade of the designated use to match the existing use will provide incredible economic benefits that potentially exceed $1 billion and improve the surrounding communities. In a recent study, the restoration of dissolved oxygen in the Delaware River was modeled to predict water quality and ecological improvements that directly and indirectly benefit the region’s economy.

Even though many of the recognized benefits could not be translated to economic valuation, it forecasted benefits ranging from $40 million to $60 million annually, and total benefits approaching $1 billion for local economies. Next, poorer communities around the Delaware River will enjoy better water quality after having to endure degraded water quality and failure of the basic implementation of Clean Water Act protections on the tidal river.  Other examples of observed improvements are the return of recreational watersports; and both the restoration of striped bass and American shad fisheries around the river. 

If you are interested in learning more about these economic benefits, this webinar focuses on the recent economic study and details regarding potential economic benefits.  

We are excited about this opportunity to protect the fish of the Delaware, improve the water quality protections in and around Philadelphia, and ensure that the existing uses for the entire Delaware River mainstem are protected. But we need your help! 

Please join us and sign the letter in support of the Delaware River Fish Protection Petition. 

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