Move to Tighten Water-Quality Standards Along Stretch of Delaware Used for Recreation

People may be swimming and tubing, but regulations along urban stretch of river only apply to activities in which there’s little chance of coming in contact with the water
Credit: Tim Mossholder via Unsplash
River tubing

The Delaware River Basin Commission is being urged to upgrade a designation for an urban stretch of the river to protect the public who come in contact with it while swimming, tubing and water-skiing, as well as other recreational activities.

In a petition filed yesterday by a coalition of environmental organizations, the agency is urged to modify the current legally designated uses of the river to reflect actual uses, a step that could lead to tougher standards to improve the river’s water quality.

In a sense, the filing reflects, in part, the success over the past 50 years of the federal Clean Water Act,  but is a reminder that a small portion of the river has yet to meet the goals of the law.

The roughly 26-mile urban section of the river — from the mouth of Pompeston Creek in Burlington County to near the Commodore Barry Bridge connecting Chester, PA, and Logan Township — is the last remaining portion of the river with a “secondary contact’’ recreational use.

Don’t swallow the water

Such a designation allows only those activities where the probability of significant contact or water ingestion is minimal, such as boating and fishing. But the petition argues this section of the river is widely used for so-called primary contact recreational activities — typically swimming, water-skiing, tubing and stand-up paddle boarding.

“As water quality has improved along the Lower Delaware, the public is voting with their feet and their bodies — people are recreating in the river,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, one of the organizations filing the petition.

“All we are asking is for the DRBC to recognize this use and to ensure that standards are in place that are ensuring the ongoing protection of these uses,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

All of the other reaches of the Delaware River are protected for primary-contact recreation; the urban reaches should be protected too, van Rossum said.

If granted, the DRBC likely would have to adopt new regulations governing discharges into the river to improve water quality along the roughly 26-mile section of the Delaware. Such rules could limit what sewage-treatment plants discharge into the river, impose tougher restrictions on stormwater runoff and push for an accelerated end to combined sewer overflows, which spew untreated sewage into waters following heavy rainfall.

“Upgrading the water-quality standards for this section of the Delaware River will not only make the river safer for the many people who recreate there now, but would represent a broader win for the health and safety of the public and environment for generations to come,’’ said Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council.