New federal money kick-starts water trail on Camden rivers

Advocates say opening water access will help address environmental injustice
Credit: dsearls via Creative Commons under CC BY 2.0
Aerial view of the Delaware River as it flows around Petty’s Island, which will be part of the planned Camden water trail.

Plans for a water trail at Camden were boosted Monday with the announcement of $500,000 in new federal funding intended to help the project become a reality.

The grant was part of $11.5 million from two funds administered by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to more than 40 local groups in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware working on improving the natural environment in the Delaware River Basin.

In Camden, the new money accelerates the realization of the planned 13-mile trail that will allow kayakers, canoeists and small motorboats to travel the Delaware and Cooper Rivers, through dense urban neighborhoods and past long-neglected natural sites.

The idea of the water trail, said Don Baugh, president of Upstream Alliance — the nonprofit that received the money — is to reconnect residents of one of America’s poorest cities with the rivers that surround them, and which represent a largely inaccessible recreational asset.

‘A city of water’

“Camden is really a city of water but it has been walled off by pollution, and this is an opportunity to connect people to its most vital open space,” Baugh said after a news conference to announce the overall funding package. “Its waterways just haven’t been there for them but now they can be there for them, and I think will be transformational for the City of Camden and the surrounding area.”

In a city of 74,000 where the median household income was $27,000 from 2015-2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the water trail’s advocates also hope to address centuries of environmental injustice that have subjected a mostly Black and Hispanic population to heavy pollution, and effectively denied them access to the river and its surrounding natural environment.

“Camden is an underserved city that hasn’t had the opportunities that other cities around the country have had,” Baugh said. “This is an opportunity to correct the decades of injustice.”

In the nontidal section of the Cooper River south of the Kaighn Avenue dam, the trail will allow users to paddle or drive their vessels between the dam and a Camden County Parks Department dock near Cherry Hill. North of the dam, users will be able to travel in the tidal section of the Cooper River, out into the Back Channel of the Delaware River, and circumnavigate Petty’s Island, a former oil terminal where bald eagles now nest, and which is being converted into a nature preserve.

Trail users who want to travel between the two sections will initially have to carry their vessels over the dam, but advocates hope eventually to create a channel that will allow them to float past the dam, as well as building a ladder for fish passage.

The water trail idea has been in the works for five years but has previously lacked the funding to be implemented, he said. “This investment will allow it to go from the dream to reality,” Baugh said.

The new federal money will pay for signs and to hire eight people: four paddling guides, one fishing instructor, two outreach employees and a seasonal coordinator. The trail is expected to open in about two years.

The overall cost of the trail will be about $1.5 million, of which $750,000 is coming from Camden County, Baugh said. The county money includes $400,000 for the construction of four new access points. Other matching funds come mostly from the William Penn Foundation, which provided about $360,000.

40+ projects in the works

The water trail is among 41 projects across the watershed funded by the latest grants. Together with $13.5 million in matching funds from grantees, the total new spending on conservation projects will be some $25 million, officials said.

The grants were awarded through two programs managed by the foundation: the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund (DWCF), which is funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Delaware River Restoration Fund (DRRF), funded by the William Penn Foundation.

In New Jersey, 11 other projects were funded by the conservation fund. They include $560,000 to the American Littoral Society for restoring Kimbles Beach, an important site for shorebirds and horseshoe crabs in Cape May County, and $362,000 to Musconetcong Watershed Association to create an online map that links conservation to recreation.

Another four New Jersey projects were funded by the restoration fund. They include $220,000 to Rutgers University to implement green stormwater improvements in the Upper Salem Valley watershed, and $275,000 to the South Jersey Land and Water Trust to install green stormwater infrastructure and restore habitat in the Alloway and Muddy Run watersheds.

In the other basin states, the new funds include $179,500 for dam-removal on a creek in Delaware, $255,000 to improve water quality in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River by implementing agricultural best-management practices and $75,000 for improving trout habitat on a New York State river.

The DWCF, which funded the Camden water trail, is designed to achieve the conservation goals of the federal Delaware River Basin Conservation Act of 2016, which directs the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to coordinate the conservation activities of local groups in the basin.

Overall, the projects will improve land management on about 12,000 acres; use agricultural conservation to treat polluted runoff on more than 900 acres; plant 585 acres of wetlands and establish public access to some 1,500 acres, officials said.

“The projects and partnerships supported by these grants will conserve and sustain these lands and waters, as well as the people and wildlife who depend on them, for generations to come,” said Wendi Weber, director of the North Atlantic-Appalachian division for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The William Penn Foundation is a major funder of NJ Spotlight News.

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