On a warm August afternoon, a ragged raft of plastic flotation devices and other watercraft carrying around 40 people drifted slowly on the tide up a Delaware River channel between the Camden County riverfront and Petty’s Island, site of a former oil terminal.
Saturday’s gathering might have been mistaken for just a bunch of partiers out on the water for a few hours. But this was Floatopia, a rally designed to build support for improved public access to the Delaware River in a community that for generations has shunned the waterway as a recreational asset, and to press for the river’s continued cleanup.
To show their support for a more user-friendly river, participants lolled in the laps of inflatable flamingoes, unicorns and assorted plastic rings tied to kayaks and two floating docks, and steered by two motorized boats that provided some measure of control over the unwieldy flotilla.
Attendees included environmental and community activists; a county official; kayakers out for a paddle with their kids, and Camden residents who had heard about the event on social media and decided to give it a try. The event was the first since a test run two years ago.
The aim was to show people in Camden and surrounding communities that they can — on most days — safely paddle, sail, fish, observe wildlife, and even swim in the river despite its public image as a badly polluted and inaccessible wilderness.
‘At a tipping point’
“We believe this part of the Delaware is at a tipping point,” said Don Baugh, president of Upstream Alliance, a nonprofit that aims to reconnect people with nature, and was the main organizer of the event. “Part of that tipping point is showing the community what’s out here because by and large the community has been walled away from these waters, and for generations they have been polluted.”
Baugh said he modeled the event on the annual Big Float in Portland, Oregon, in which thousands of people have floated through a downtown stretch of the Willamette River over the last decade to celebrate that river’s cleanup, and to press for further improvements.
On the lower Delaware, Baugh and other activists are pressing city, state and regional authorities to curb sewage outflows into a 27-mile section of the river that flows past Camden, Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania. While the river is cleaner than it was in the mid-20th century, thanks to tighter controls on wastewater treatment plants, it needs more work, especially when heavy rains cause the flooding of dozens of antiquated drains called Combined Sewer Overflows that carry runoff and untreated sewage into the river.
But with signs that the public is ready to jump back into the water, advocates are pressing officials at the Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate regulator, to declare the urban river fit for “primary contact,” meaning that the water is clean enough to swim in. At present, that stretch is the only part of the 300-mile river to have “secondary contact” status, which assumes that users don’t immerse themselves in the water.
People are using the river more
Despite the official designations, people are beginning to use the river more, and they can do so safely most of the time, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a nonprofit that co-sponsored the event.
“People are back in the river, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and that to me is the public expression of how they want to use that water,” he said. “It’s a public trust; they have a right to use these waters, so we’re trying to figure out how to make that happen.”
In their efforts to show people that the water is at least cleaner than it used to be, organizers of Saturday’s event eagerly pointed to a bald eagle that flew over the voyage, indicating that the river now supports life that sustains the iconic birds.
‘So many kids grow up in Camden without being able to use the water that is right in their back yards,’ Nathaniel Hernandez
The campaign has also attracted the support of Urban Promise, a Camden nonprofit that provides programs for teens who may be at risk on the impoverished and sometimes violent streets of the city.
Nathaniel Hernandez, who leads an outdoor-expedition program for the group, said that a return to the river is consistent with his goals.
“So many kids grow up in Camden without being able to use the water that is right in their back yards,” he said. “One of the reasons for that is lack of access, and lack of knowledge of how to use this water. Many of them have never seen the river from the water before.
Not just for the rich
“We want to make sure that being on the water is not just a rich people thing or a white people thing. We want to make sure it’s for everybody,” he said.
Yadid Rico, a Camden resident, brought his 11-year-old nephew, J.P. Barecca, to Floatopia because he wanted to overcome a fear of the water and to find out more about what’s happening in the city where Rico has lived for the past two years.
The event also attracted Lion James and his son Drake, 11, in their kayaks. James, who lives in Blackwood, admitted he doesn’t swim in the river or eat the fish he catches there, but said there are now more places where he can launch his boat — such as at Pyne Poynt Park in north Camden, one of two current access points in the city, and where Floatopia began and ended.
“Access has been cleaned up and made easier for launching small watercraft,” he said. “They showed me a part of Camden that I didn’t even know existed.”