Cooper River in Camden County, Long Polluted, Now ‘Poster Child’ for Clean Water Act

Tom Johnson | October 23, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
Water quality and habitat much improved. As a result, DEP chooses part of the Cooper as first-ever urban stream for highest levels of protection
Credit: Camden County
The Cooper River

It wasn’t too long ago that the Cooper River was awash in raw sewage. Even today, approaching the river at Gateway Park in Pennsauken, a sign warns visitors of possible sewage overflows during and following wet weather.

Nevertheless, environmentalists and local and county officials tout achievements in cleaning up the 17-mile river, a portion of which has been designated by the state for the highest levels of protections for surface waters in New Jersey.

The designation of two miles of the tidal waters of the Cooper for Category 1 (C-1) protection by the Department of Environmental Protection marks the first-ever for an urban stream, a distinction earned by improving water quality and the finding of an endangered species, the Easternpond mussel, in sections of the waterway.

“The Cooper River is a poster child for why we passed the Clean Water Act and how the Act has succeeded. In a generation, we have gone from the river serving as a dead zone to being a living part of Camden County communities,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Before the passage of the federal Clean Water Act 47 years ago, the Cooper River was heavily polluted, roughly 40% raw sewage, according to Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young. But aggressive action by the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority improved water quality by 90%, he said.

These days, portions of the river host national rowing and regatta events. Recreational boaters are lured to it by the opportunity to spot bald eagles, great blue herons and egrets. But access to its waters remains limited, including no access at Gateway Park, a linear patch of greenway abutting heavily trafficked Admiral Wilson Boulevard.

More protections against pollution

The tidal portion of the Cooper — running downstream from the park from Route 30 to the Delaware River — is part of a larger proposal announced this spring by the DEP. It calls for 749 miles of state streams and rivers to be designated as C-1. The designation of waterways with high water quality is being made for a variety of reasons, including exceptional ecological significance and exceptional recreational significance.

More importantly, the designation provides upgraded safeguards against pollution to ensure water quality in the stream or river does not suffer any measurable degradation. The proposed designations are expected to be finalized early next year.

“The water quality improvements on the Cooper River have helped the local community and national rowing community,’’ said Jamie Stack, Camden County Boathouse Manager/rowing operations. “After projects were completed and as more continues to happen, it makes the water much more appealing to be around and race down the course.’’

Young agreed, adding “We must continue to seek action in order to protect them (waterways) from future contamination and pollution.’’

Beyond protecting against further pollution of the waterways, the C-1 designation also helps reduce flooding as well as protecting drinking water supplies, said Fred Stine, citizen action coordinator at the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.