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The Schuylkill is clean but has a public relations problem, study finds

"People should turn toward the river rather than from it,” says Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director of the Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area.

Rowers practice on the Schuylkill River, which is cleaner than people think.
Rowers practice on the Schuylkill River, which is cleaner than people think.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

The Schuylkill is clean enough for recreation, such as boating or organized swim events most days, but is persistently believed by a majority of people as too polluted go in or near, according to a new study by a group of nonprofits.

The group and a consultant examined water quality for 71 miles of the main stem of the Schuylkill from Reading to Southwest Philadelphia and surveyed 300 people to understand how the river is perceived.

They found a big disconnect, said Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director of the Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area.

“It’s been sort of a vexing issue for many, many years,” Schaefer said. “And after so many years of truly being polluted, it has a terrible reputation that it doesn’t deserve anymore.”

Her organization teamed with Berks Nature in Reading; Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Chester County; and Bartram’s Garden and the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia for the study. New Jersey-based Princeton Hydro compiled a report based on the data. The William Penn Foundation funded the project.

“We’re trying to make that case to the public that the term Schuylkill punch no longer applies,” Schaefer said. “And people should turn toward the river rather than from it.”

One of the reasons for the public perception of the river: visible trash along the banks.

How was the study conducted?

  1. The group installed four monitoring stations along the river to record water temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, and conductivity from September 2020 to January 2022.

  2. They sampled for E. coli bacteria during both dry and wet weather at the four locations.

  3. Separately, they sent volunteers to record trash and illegal dumping along the river and got 100 responses, but with a high concentration of those responses around Phoenixville.

  4. They surveyed 300 residents of Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties about their perceptions of the river.

The study’s findings

Enterococci coli (E. coli) are bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of animals, including humans. E. coli concentrations were generally safe on dry days “during swimming season months” but “extremely elevated” during and after storms at some locations, meaning the water was too dirty for humans during those times. Fecal waste enters the Schuylkill and other waterways through failing septic tanks, leaking sewer lines, urban storm-water runoff, and combined sewer systems that send overflow of untreated waste during heavy rains directly into the water. Livestock is another source of E. coli.

» READ MORE: Climate change is straining Philly’s 19th-century sewage system

Water temperature is a barometer for aquatic life such as trout. Though temperatures increased going downstream into Philadelphia, overall they fit within a good range.

Dissolved oxygen is also critical for aquatic life and is made worse by higher water temperatures. Levels were normal in all locations.

Turbidity is an indicator of water clarity, and high levels can smother some aquatic life. Levels were mostly healthy but spiked during storms. Turbidity was slightly elevated at the Schuylkill River Greenways station in Pottstown and Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.

Conductivity serves as a gauge for salt levels and increases during snowstorms as crews treat roads. Average conductivity was slightly elevated at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education compared with other stations but within a normal range.

Trash, the most visible sign of pollution, can also be ingested by, or entangle, wildlife. It gets into the river through litter or being washed down storm drains during storms. Volunteers counted trash within 100 feet of their assigned sites. Most locations upstream of Valley Forge were “optimal” on average, while most sites downstream of that were “suboptimal” or “marginal.”

» READ MORE: The EPA is dunking giant ‘pool skimmers’ in the Schuylkill to suck out trash — and figure how much plastic waste is in the water

The trash problem

Trash is a deal-breaker for many.

“For better or for worse, there’s a tendency that when people see trash, they think unhealthy, polluted, and dangerous,” said John Jackson, senior research scientist at Stroud. “I think in terms of reaching the public, trash may be the pollutant I’m most concerned about. If we can’t make the river look good, how will people ever believe that it’s not polluted?”

Indeed, the survey found that 56% of people care about the river, and most use it to bike, run, or walk along. However, many don’t believe it is clean enough for recreational activities in the water or to eat fish from.

An overwhelming majority, 85%, cited “trash and litter” when asked about the main cause of river contamination.

What about chemicals?

However, 66% also cited “chemicals and other toxins” as either a major or minor problem. The study did not sample for chemicals.

But the public has been concerned in recent years about man-made per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are potentially harmful. The Philadelphia Water Department, which draws drinking water from the Schuylkill, said in its most recent water quality report that water sampling in “the city’s rivers and creeks” has not “detected amounts at or above the EPA’s health advisory levels.”

The department also operates its online Rivercast service, which lets users see in real time if the river is safe for “activities involving direct or indirect contact” with the water.

Though levels of chemicals such as mercury and PCBs in the river are generally low, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission does have a fish consumption advisory for some parts of the Schuylkill. The commission says that long-lasting contaminants that also include chlordane (once used as a pesticide) and mercury can build up in bodies over time from fish.

So it advises limiting consumption of certain species of fish caught in various river segments to as much as one meal a month to only six meals a year. Or it advises not eating some fish altogether depending where they are caught.

The river is generally safe for swimming, but the activity is illegal in Philadelphia unless it’s part of an organized event such as a triathlon. And the water should not be swallowed. The Philadelphia Water Department draws drinking water from the Schuylkill but puts it through a long cleaning process that includes chlorination to kill bacteria.

Overall, though, Jackson says the river is safe for most activity.

“People have a perception that there’s a danger there,” he said. “But that isn’t supported by what we know about the river. ... We don’t celebrate the improvements.”