The Delaware River: A Timeline of Revival

WHYY News | January 25, 2019 | Energy & Environment
It took decades, but a combination of public outcry, political will and the Clean Water Act eventually spurred the river’s revival

Credit: Library of Congress
Shad fishermen loading their half-mile of net on the Delaware River, 1905 ca.
Reviving the Delaware River took decades and came about through a combination of social need, public outcry, and political will. Regional efforts like the formation of the Delaware River Basin Commission helped bring the issue of water quality to the forefront, but nothing quite had the impact of the Clean Water Act, which not only regulated what could go into the river but also offered federal dollars to fix the problems.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Delaware River was the nation’s shad capital; approximately 16 million shad were caught each spring on the river, with an income value of $149 million in today’s dollars. But by the 1920s, shad had been nearly eliminated due to pollution and overfishing.

During World War II, industries along the river ramped up production to aid the war effort, and any efforts to improve sewage treatment were tabled, as money was tied up in funding the war. A U.S. Army pilot claimed he could smell the river from 5,000 feet in the air.

In 1961, the Delaware River Basin Commission was formed. It began programs to regularly test the river for pollution and set goals and standards for industry and municipal wastewater treatment plants. However, many of the plans were hampered by a lack of federal funds.

Then came the Clean Water Act in 1972. And things began to change.

Learn the timeline of the Delaware River’s recovery in “Reviving the River,” a series by WHYY, a content partner of NJ Spotlight.