In the 1960s, the Delaware River didn’t attract many nature lovers or outdoors enthusiasts because it was, in the words of the Delaware River Basin Commission, “an open sewer.”
The river is a lot cleaner now, thanks mostly to half a century of tough limits on the discharges of wastewater treatment plants, and is enjoyed by thousands of people who use it to fish, paddle, swim or watch wildlife. But they want to keep it that way, and to see further gains in water quality.
That’s why 68 of them paddled kayaks and canoes down a five-mile stretch of the river from Bordentown to Florence on Saturday on the last day of the 25th Delaware River Sojourn, an annual river trip for those who want to celebrate and preserve the integrity of a natural gem at the heart of one of America’s most densely populated regions.
At least 15 paddlers completed all eight days of this year’s Sojourn from Narrowsburg, N.Y., to Florence, paddling about 10 miles a day, and enduring frequent rainstorms on the river and at campsites. For some, it marked their 25th consecutive year of participation in an event that many said feels like family coming together.
“It’s kind of an extended family, like the cousins you only see once a year,” said Paul Wesolowski, 63, an accountant from New Hope, Pa., who was paddling his canoe down the entire Sojourn route for the 11th consecutive year, this time with his two children, ages 11 and 14.
Although individual Sojourners can’t require wastewater plants to pump fewer pollutants into the river, they can help to clean up its debris, and there’s less of that than there used to be, Wesolowski said.
“Over 11 years, the river does seem a lot cleaner than it was when I started,” he said. “Having a canoe, I used to pick up old tires, bottles and cans. I don’t see as much of that in the last couple of years.”
The Sojourn — organized or supported by the DRBC, the state Department of Environmental Protection and about 20 other governmental and nonprofit groups — teaches participants about the ecology of the river and its recreational value, but also about its economic importance for tourism and industry, Wesolowski said.
While much of the Bordentown-Florence stretch is wooded on both sides, it’s industrial in some places, and is heavily used by commercial and recreational vessels. This year’s Sojourners had to share the river with power boats and jet skis, paddled past mountains of scrap metal that were waiting for export near an industrial port on the Pennsylvania side, and hurried out of the way of a barge that was being pushed up the river by a tugboat.
For Mike Slattery, Delaware River Watershed coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, participation in the Sojourn for all eight days was an opportunity to get better acquainted with the communities along the way. Preservation of fish and wildlife is connected to the riverside towns that depend on outdoor recreation, he said.
Slattery, who is responsible for allocating federal grants to conservation groups under the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act of 2016, said he didn’t previously understand how wild the river is in many places.
“To see just how clean the water is, to see just how rich the animal life is, just how diverse the plant communities are, to see just how vigorous the rapids are in certain places, it’s really made an impression on me,” he said.
Although water quality is much better than before the DRBC was set up in 1961, further improvements can be made by, for example, working with the timber industry to prevent silt from entering the river during harvests, and persuading towns to install rain gardens to absorb contaminant-laden runoff during rain storms, Slattery said.
“Individually, they may not seem that significant but when you have a whole community pulling together, it rolls up to something much bigger than the sum of the individual parts,” he said.
At the governmental level, the DRBC is working toward more improvements in water quality by looking at whether further cuts in permitted waste water discharges in the river’s tidal section would significantly boost the level of dissolved oxygen (DO), an important indicator of the river’s health that determines whether many fish species can survive and breed.
Discharges were so heavy during the 1960s that the river’s DO level at the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia fell to zero milligrams per liter in the summer, DRBC data show. Over the following 50 years, oxygen levels climbed steadily to about 7 mg/L by 2016, thanks to the DRBC’s discharge regulations, and now exceed the commission’s water-quality standard.
Data from June 16 to 21 this year show DO levels in all five of the river’s zones — including Zone 2, where the Sojourn concluded its latest trip — was above the standard.
But the success so far raises questions about whether further gains can be made.
“We’d like to raise that water-quality standard even higher than what we have right now, and we need to know how much we can achieve by reducing pollutants for dissolved oxygen,” said Namsoo Suk, the commission’s director of science and water quality management, in an interview. “We’re trying to figure out how high DO can be achieved by reducing some of the point source wastewater treatment waste.”
DRBC scientists, working with universities, nonprofits, municipal and industrial dischargers, and other regulators, are in the midst of a three-and-a-half-year study of the DO levels in 38 miles of the river between Wilmington, Del., and the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge connecting Philadelphia with New Jersey. They hope to complete the study by spring 2021, Suk said.
The commission represents the interests of the four basin states — New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware — plus the federal government, in regulating water quality and supply.
Meanwhile, the Sojourn continues to build citizen support for river conservation, even if, like some of this year’s participants, they come from as far away as Michigan, Tennessee and Colorado.
New Jersey resident Judith Glassgold, a psychologist from Hillsborough Township in Somerset County, paddled her kayak all eight days, and said the experience was “fabulous” despite heavy rains almost every day.
Glassgold, 62, predicted that kayakers will become conservationists by spending all that time on the river and educating themselves on the issues while in the company of kindred spirits. For example, Sojourners watched nitrate levels rise in river gauges during heavy rains as fertilizer got washed into the river from farms, gardens and lawns, she said.
The experience also raised questions about whether the unusually heavy rainfall reflected a changing climate, and whether individuals can help to curb carbon emissions through individual actions like driving fuel-efficient cars, putting solar panels on their houses, or pressing elected officials to make climate-related policy.
“Consumer choices are very powerful, and local governments are very responsive,” she said.
The Sojourn also has the capacity to improve participants’ mental health simply by being out in nature and connecting with others, said Glassgold, who traveled with her partner, Meg Harmsen.
Jen Emrey of Lehighton, Pa., paddling for her 12th year, was accompanied by her husband, her daughter, and a pet duck named Cosmo that was rejected by its mother when it hatched five weeks ago. The duck had become so dependent on Emrey that she couldn’t leave it behind, and received special permission from the organizers, who don’t normally allow pets. “It was a little difficult to find a duckling sitter at the last minute,” she said.
Besides, said Kate Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the DRBC, “What better mascot for a river trip than a duck?”
For David Simon, who has paddled every day but one of every Sojourn for the last 25 years, the event has nurtured a sense of family over succeeding generations while strengthening a conservation ethic.
“It brings people to the river and they learn about the river, and they take that back and come back every year and bring their friends and families,” he said, noting that one of this year’s participants was a 17-year-old girl who first traveled the river in utero with her pregnant mother.
Simon, 69, a retired steelworker from Bethlehem, Pa., said the river has gotten a lot cleaner over the years, as shown by an increasing number of bald eagles hunting over the water, and it has converted him into a committed environmentalist.
“Twenty-five years ago, if you had called me a tree hugger, I probably would have slammed you,” he said. “But now, I consider myself a tree hugger.”