Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Can big ships and little kayaks both use the Delaware in Philly? A battle brews.

Groups have worked for years to try to change the designation of a 27-mile stretch of Delaware River in Philly to what’s known as “primary contact.”

A group paddles out of the marina during the Independence Seaport Museum’s kayaking eco tour on the Delaware River in Philadelphia in 2019.
A group paddles out of the marina during the Independence Seaport Museum’s kayaking eco tour on the Delaware River in Philadelphia in 2019.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The Delaware River flows undammed for 330 miles from New York to Cape May and for nearly that entire length people can swim, tube, paddleboard, Jet Ski, and kayak — except where it runs through Philadelphia.

Environmental groups have worked for years to try to change the designation of a 27-mile stretch between the Tacony-Palmyra and Commodore Barry Bridges so that people can use it for nonmotorized recreation.

At issue: Who gets to use the Delaware River in Philly, and what level of pollution is allowable?

The debate involves some of the biggest players on the river, including the $53 billion port industry, environmental groups, the Philadelphia Water Department, and Philadelphia City Council.

In a December letter to City Council, the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay, a nonprofit trade association and port business advocate, pushed back against a change in the river’s designation by citing safety concerns.

Their objection is part of a rekindled debate on a regulatory issue.

Currently, the river is designated for “secondary contact,” which can include rowing, power boating, and fishing. Environmental groups want to change it to what’s known as “primary contact” under the Clean Water Act, which means people can use it for recreation that includes direct touching, splashing, or immersion in the water without getting sick from water contamination. Though many ignore the current designation and there’s no real enforcement, a change would mean that polluters are held to higher standards.

The letter prompted some members of Philadelphia City Council, which hadn’t taken a public stand, to write their own letter calling for opening the river to all. Environmental groups that fear losing the river’s Clean Water Act designation jumped in to support the Council members.

Further complicating matters is the Philadelphia Water Department, which not only draws drinking water from the river, but also is one of the biggest polluters through its aging sewer system.

“I think what industry and the Maritime Exchange is trying to assert is that if you recognize the river for primary contact designation, and give it the appropriate protection, more people will enjoy the river,” said Maya Van Rossum, executive director of the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “And the Maritime Exchange doesn’t want to see that. They believe the river belongs to them, and not the people.”

She asserts that people are already using the river for recreational purposes, and therefore it should already be regulated for primary contact.

Who decides who uses the Delaware River?

The renewed debate stems from a petition the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and a host of environmental groups and river users sent to the Delaware River Basin Commission in 2020, saying that the river is much cleaner than in decades past and should be protected by a “primary contact swimmable” designation.

The Clean Water Act regulates waterway pollution with the goal of making them clean enough for fishing and swimming. The act requires states to list impaired waters with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency including those unfit for “fish propagation” or “human recreation.” States are supposed to set pollution limits to reach these goals.

But the Delaware River flows through four states, making coordination the tricky and delicate job of the Delaware River Basin Commission, or DRBC. It was created under a compact to balance the needs of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Politically savvy environmental groups know that getting people to recreate on the Philly stretch of the river puts pressure on the DRBC to promote making the river fit for people to touch. So in recent years, groups such as the Upstream Alliance under Don Baugh, have helped lead kayak tours, often bringing along public officials so they can view the river at eye level. They’ve also engaged community groups and schoolchildren.

But changing the designation could force industry and the Philadelphia Water Department to spend a lot of money it doesn’t have right now. And the maritime industries worry it would lead more recreational users into shipping lanes and around ports.

About 60% of the city is covered by an older, combined sewer system, which means a single pipe carries both stormwater and sewage from streets, houses, and businesses directly to a wastewater treatment plant. The system works fine during dry weather. However, during big storms, the combined system is overloaded, sending sewage and stormwater into rivers and creeks.

» READ MORE: Climate change is straining Philly’s 19th-century sewage system. Ida was a ‘wake-up call.’

Kate Schmidt, a DRBC spokeswoman, said the agency has been monitoring for bacteria around Philadelphia and Camden since 2019, including locations in Chester City, Red Bank in Gloucester County, Penn’s Landing and Frankford Arsenal in Philly and Pyne Poynt Park in Camden. At Pyne Poynt, the DRBC and U.S. Geological Survey installed “an advanced next generation water-quality instrument to monitor bacteria” in near real time.

Schmidt said major sources of bacteria include combined sewer systems, waste from dogs and other animals, and stormwater runoff.

So far, data show concentrations of bacteria are higher near the shoreline, where people are more likely to hang out, rather than in the center channel. “This warrants additional study before any change to the designated use is considered,” she said.

She also said safety issues raised by the Maritime Exchange are real, given tricky tides, large vessels, and submerged debris and infrastructure.

Why is the Maritime Exchange Involved?

Lisa Himber, president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay, said she wrote her letter after supplying the Philadelphia Water Department with data about shipping and maritime facilities for the past year and a half. Through that work, Himber became aware of the petition to the DRBC and decided to weigh in.

“The main concern is safety,” Himber said. “The secondary concern is security. The Maritime Exchange is concerned about activity that might cause some sort of harm to recreational water users, or to the crews on the ships, or the ships carrying cargo.”

She cited the notorious July 2010 accident when a barge pushed by a tugboat struck a duck boat stranded in the Delaware River off Penn’s Landing after an engine fire. Two tourists died; it was later discovered that the crew member in charge of operating the tugboat was talking on a cell phone with relatives about a family emergency, his view of the barge significantly blocked. Himber said that although she knows of no serious accidents following that, she has heard about near misses.

“This letter is to inform you of the significant hazards associated with the ‘Swimmable Delaware’ initiative,” Himber wrote to council, continuing, “mariners aboard commercial vessels cannot necessarily see a swimmer or personal craft operator even at short distances and may not be able to take evasive action if they do.”

Why is City Council involved?

This month, 11 members of City Council sent a letter through Councilmember Mark Squilla’s office to Himber, disagreeing with her assessment. They said that city residents should enjoy the river the same way people can in the other 303 miles of the river, but said they would help with a solution — which Himber said was a positive step.

“The Council supports commercial shipping and on-water recreation continuing to coexist safely,” the members wrote. “We would be pleased to explore constructive solutions with you, similar to those implemented in New York Harbor where recreation representatives are active members of the New York Harbor Safety Committee.”

Council noted that the Independence Seaport Museum, the Red Dragon Canoe Club, and the youth of UrbanPromise are among community groups already using the river for recreation that involves primary contact with the water.

Squilla said he felt like the Maritime Exchange letter needed a response, “especially after recently kayaking on the Delaware myself.” He also said now is the time to act with federal money coming in from the infrastructure legislation.

“I think it is important to continue and grow our maritime business while promoting access to our waterways for recreation,” he said.

But a lot still hinges on the Water Department.

What is the Philadelphia Water Department’s role?

Water Department spokesman Brian Rademaeker wrote in an email to The Inquirer that the department is committed to “improving the water quality in the Delaware River, along with the other waterways in our city. Philadelphia’s plan for addressing combined sewer overflows is approved by state and federal regulators and we are investing billions of dollars in protecting local waterways.”

But the statement said the designation for “water contact,” especially recreation and swimming, “is a complicated issue.” The department is expected to complete a study by summer on safety on the river that’s intended to be used by regulatory agencies.

“The PWD study is not intended to prevent or encourage any form of recreation, and recreational uses on local waterways are not regulated by PWD,” the statement said, however, noting that stretch of river has never been approved for “Water Contact Sports” under Pennsylvania Water Quality Standards, because of combined sewer overflows and commercial shipping hazards.

“Furthermore, we work hard to address the multiple demands of our drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater management systems while balancing the enormous costs of these programs and the financial pressures they put on our customers through rising rates,” the statement said.

» READ MORE: Is it safe to swim in the Delaware or Schuylkill? What about Devil’s Pool? It’s complicated.

‘Raw sewage’

Pennsylvania is set to get hundreds of millions of dollars under the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last year by President Joe Biden. Environmental groups want some of it to improve Philadelphia’s combined sewer overflows, but the city’s allocation is not yet clear.

David Masur, executive direction of PennEnvironment, said he believes the Water Department is using safety as an issue to distract from the pollution it generates. He said maritime safety is not part of a “primary contact” designation.

“If you raise the level to recreational use,” Masur said, “Then the Water Department will have to make it so people won’t get sick from all the raw sewage from the pipes in our homes and the polluted runoff from our streets that go untreated into the river after storms. You’re going to have to deal with the massive pollution issues of the combined sewer overflows.”