The Delaware River is getting deeper.
Workers are in the final stages of a joint federal and state effort dredging the shipping channel to make way for larger ships. It’s the culmination of a multi-million-dollar project stalled for years by doubts over economic benefits and fears of environmental damage.
Talk of deepening the Delaware River’s shipping channel by another five feet goes all the way back to the 1980s.
But for years officials in Delaware and New Jersey refused to get on board and things got ugly — to the point at which in 2005, Pennsylvania’s then-governor Ed Rendell played hardball with New Jersey, threatening to shut down the PATCO trains that bring South Jersey commuters to Philadelphia.
“We have to do something to get their attention and it’s unfortunate and it’s my hope that we’ll work this out,” Rendell said at the time.
Rendell, along with Pennsylvania business leaders and unions, warned that without a deeper river, Philadelphia ports would lose customers. With fewer ships calling, the region would lose a lot of good-paying jobs.
But environmentalists and state officials in New Jersey and Delaware continued crying foul right up until the day dredging boats finally started scooping mud out of the river in 2010.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Delaware Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum don’t agree on much these days, but back then, they were part of a group that sued to stop the project.
“They’re willing to reintroduce toxins into the environment, to put at risk the drinking water supplies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware,” Van Rossum said.
Christie was biting at the time: “This plan makes absolutely no sense. It makes no sense economically, and it is dangerous environmentally.”
Fast forward to today and the $400-million deepening project is in its last stages.
The work includes blowing up giant rocks at the bottom of the river. Environmentalists worried this could hurt fish. So did it?
The Drillboat Apache stretches about as long as a football field on the lower end of the river. The crew uses giant red drills to bore into the rock below. Then, the holes are filled with dynamite and blown up.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is leading the project and footing two-thirds of the bill. That includes close to $3 million dollars to protect the Atlantic sturgeon.
The bony, dinosaur-looking fish made New Jersey world-famous for its caviar back in the late 1800s. The Corps is paying $10,000 for each of the 300 spawning females left in the Delaware.
Engineer Ryan Moore said that before blasting, a contractor uses giant nets to collect all the sturgeon in the area, tag them, and relocate them upriver. But if even one sturgeon swims back toward the Drillboat Apache, things come to a halt.
“It’s basically waiting on one fish to get out of the area. That’s happened a couple times where we’ve had to delay 45 minutes, an hour,” Moore said.
The Army Corps says it’s documented only one dead Atlantic sturgeon as a result of the blasting.
But the sturgeon was just one item on a laundry list of environmental concerns that included things like oysters, horseshoe crabs and where to put all the potentially hazardous muck dredged from the river bottom.
Environmentalists also worried the project would stir up toxins like PCBs, which could end up in drinking water and the fish people eat.
But six years after the Army Corps began deepening the Delaware, it says monitoring has shown water quality still meets state and federal standards.
Today the main concern isn’t Atlantic sturgeon or where to dump dredge spoils. It’s something no one was talking about 10 years ago — climate change.
Here’s the problem: At the same time the U.S. Army Corps is making the river deeper, sea levels are rising because of climate change.
A deeper river means it’ll be easier for the salty water to move even farther upriver.
Desmond Kahn is a biologist who’s spent about 20 years working in the Delaware Estuary — the area where salt water from the Atlantic Ocean mixes with fresh river water.
“Some organisms can handle salty water, some can’t,” he said. “If it were to increase and move up the estuary, that would affect organisms. It’s also potentially a problem for drinking water intakes.”
If salt water reaches up Philadelphia’s drinking water intakes, it would threaten the clean water source for hundreds of thousands of people.
That problem could be solved by releasing more fresh water from reservoirs in upstate New York, but there could be another issue:
Kahn says taking more sediment out of the river could also accelerate erosion of the salt marshes that ring the estuary — wetlands that help protect communities from major storms, storms that climate scientists predict will get more destructive.
“We’re worried that we might be about to lose a large amount of the salt marshes we have now,” Kahn said.
But he added these impacts may not be obvious for years.
Today, environmentalists like Maya Van Rossum still think the ecological risks don’t justify the money spent.
“It’s been an inappropriate misuse of federal dollars, and we’re not going to see the adverse impacts near term, but we are going to see them long term and we’re going to see them when it’s too late to fix them,” she said.
Proponents of the river deepening say they’re proud it hasn’t had an immediate impact on water quality and aquatic life. The project is scheduled to wrap up next year.