THE HEADWATERS of the Delaware River in New York's Catskill Mountains are clear and shallow, a peaceful place for postcard snapshots, canoe treks and the quiet solitude of fly-fishing.

But more than 200 miles downstream from that idyllic spot, a wide and murky expanse separates Philadelphia from South Jersey - a geographic and political partition.

For more than 25 years, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have quarreled over a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to deepen by 5 feet the river's main channel, to 45 feet, from Camden south to the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

Environmentalists have weighed in on endangered habitats and toxic spoils, governors have squabbled and South Jersey residents have protested the mere thought of the stinking river-bottom being piled up in their figurative back yards.

Last summer, in Philadelphia, Gov. Rendell was joined by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady at a ceremony announcing a five-year, $379 million project to deepen the river's shipping channel, calling it a major milestone in ongoing efforts to expand commerce and enhance economic development.

"I consider this to be the most important project in the history of the Port of Philadelphia," Rendell said of the agreement between the Army Corps and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, signed by Assistant Secretary of the Army John Paul Woodley Jr. and PRPA Chairman John H. Estey.

But, although the Army Corps intends to start the project by year's end, some high-powered New Jersey officials are starting to ramp up the decades-long mudslinging over the plan.

"The state of New Jersey is going to fight back," vowed New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney. "We'll wind up in the courts. That's the likely outcome."

The PRPA, which became the project's non-federal sponsor last year, foresees 15,000 to 20,000 new jobs and a deeper channel to ensure that the region's ports stay competitive with nearby Baltimore and Newark.

"The project continues to move apace," said Dan Fee, a spokesman for the PRPA. "There's nothing that makes us think otherwise."

'A $500M hole in the ground'

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., a longtime opponent of the project, sees plenty of reasons to think otherwise.

The price tag is based on a 1997 tabulation, Andrews said, and it's most likely closer to $500 million now. Job creation from the dredging project would be temporary, and the future of shipping is in 50-foot channels, not 45-foot ones, making the project redundant, he said.

"The economics just don't work," he said. "You're literally putting a $500 million hole in the ground."

Andrews said that only a fraction of the fed's $220 million is available for the project and that Pennsylvania residents would pay the rest.

Fee, of the PRPA, said that New Jersey no longer contributes any money to the project and that $20 million is already available to begin.

In 2007, after 18 months of bad blood between the states, New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine dropped his opposition to the project, and Gov. Rendell agreed to drop his opposition to many Delaware River Port Authority projects that would benefit South Jersey.

Part of the agreement was that the DRPA would no longer be the non-federal sponsor of the project and that all the dredge spoils eventually would be taken to Pennsylvania.

The Army Corps claims that it was never bound by any agreement between the states, and will bypass the controversy of finding new spoil sites by using existing federal sites that dot the river in Salem and Gloucester counties.

Jeff Tittel, of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said that Rendell bullied Corzine into accepting a deal, and that now the Garden State will be dumped on again as a result.

"We've kind of given up on Corzine," Tittel said. "He's still opposed to the project, but it's like me saying I'm on a diet and getting a steak and a banana split."

Corzine's office did not return several requests for comment.

A piece of N.J. in Delaware

Along Route 130 in rural Gloucester and Salem counties, huge berms created by decades of dredge spoils rise up along the river, blocking the view but providing an illegal outlet for ATV enthusiasts and a refuge for wildlife.

One of those sites, which local police unaffectionately call "the Baja," because of lawlessness there, is made up of more than 1,500 acres of reeds, single-lane trails, and plenty of white-tailed deer amid the dark, dredged earth.

Logic would suggest that the location, on the edge of the 1,468-acre Killcohook Coordination Area, is in Pennsville, Salem County. But about 600 acres of it, created by dredge spoils, lie across an artificial line into Delaware that was established in 1681.

Lt. Allen Cummings, of the Pennsville Police Department, said that the area has quieted down in recent years as the Army Corps has blocked off entrances. Local teens find a way, though, he said, and there's still the occasional ATV accident, fire or crop of marijuana plants out there.

"If there's a fatal accident there with a four-wheeler, we have to call Delaware," he said.

An alternate plan

North of Killcohook, in Logan Township, Gloucester County, Sweeney points to a large indoor equestrian park, stables and pastures he helped to establish on a site once pegged for dredge spoils.

"This whole place would have been a big pile of mud," he said. "I think our waterfront has to be more valuable than just mud."

Sweeney and Andrews both say that a better investment in the river is the $250 million Paulsboro, Gloucester County, port project that would include rail lines, roads, piers, infrastructure and jobs.

"All of this is anticipating a 40-foot river, and it is profitable," Andrews said.

Construction on the Paulsboro project also could begin by year's end.

Sweeney said that the Army Corps still needs several permits from the New Jersey DEP and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. But Ed Voigt, an Army Corps spokesman in Philadelphia, said that those permits are being requested in "good faith and cooperation," not as absolute requirements.

"We're still wanting to work with the states, but ultimately it's a federal project," he said.

New Jersey DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said that the department was weighing all its options "in light of the Army Corps' steadfast determination to forge ahead with this project."

Voigt said that scans of the river bottom have revealed that much less of the channel needs to be dredged than previously planned - meaning fewer spoils, a smaller environmental impact and a stable price tag.

"The project has changed; all the changes have had less impact," he said.

Voigt said that contracts for dredging could be awarded by September.

But Andrews said that the basic bad idea hasn't changed, and he doesn't see a future with a 45-foot channel beneath the turbulent river that divides New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"A decade from now, there will be no 45-foot channel," said Andrews. "I frankly think nothing ever will or should be done with it."