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How clean are Philly, South Jersey waterways now? A 3-day voyage aims to find out

Growing up, the freeholder recalled, he and his friends would catch fish from the Cooper River “with tumors and three and four eyes. I’m not kidding. It was disgusting.”

Here on the dark, wooded banks of Big Timber Creek in Blackwood, the usual hum and hustle of Philadelphia's inner-ring suburbs seemed miles away Friday morning -- even with all those cars rushing by on the Route 42 overpass.

But it is precisely the proximity of this gritty freeway to a surprisingly scenic river that had brought 21 kayakers from far-flung places here to crowded Camden County for the start of a three-day celebration of Earth Day, which is Saturday.

"We are scientists, educators, and philanthropists from the Delaware,  Chesapeake, and Hudson Rivers," explained Don Baugh, president of the Annapolis, Md.-based Upstream Alliance, shortly before they embarked on what is to be a 31-mile "Paddle for Science" exploration of local waterways.

Their voyage was planned to take them Friday from Blackwood south to Old Pine Farm in Deptford and then northwest to the Delaware River, where they were to inspect the health of its mussel population, then up to Penn's Landing, where they were to spend the night on the retired battleship Olympia.

On Saturday, they will paddle from Penn's Landing to a sanitary landfill on Pennsauken Creek and back, and on Sunday to the Cooper River, entering by way of Petty's Island in Pennsauken.

Big Timber Creek's surprisingly scenic course through dense suburban sprawl is just one reason they chose it for the start  of their journey, Baugh said.

"Big Timber is also a wonderful success story" of environmental cleanup, he said, and that is a cause they want to affirm at a time when President Trump appears determined to radically scale back the Environmental Protection Agency.

For decades, 13 sewage treatment plants poured 15 million gallons of effluent every day into Big Timber Creek, Baugh said, and an additional 38 treatment plants in Camden County were polluting other rivers.

Those days still make a vivid memory for Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr., who was on hand for the launch of the paddle trip but did not join it. He told how, growing up, he and his friends would catch fish from the nearby Cooper River "with tumors and three and four eyes. I'm not kidding. It was disgusting."

Thanks in part to the Clean Water Act of 1972 and other federal efforts, Cappelli said, Camden County closed its municipal treatment plants in the 1980s and '90s, and it now sends all sewage to a single treatment plant in Camden that he described as "state of the art."

"That's something we want to celebrate," said Baugh, whose Upstream Alliance seeks to raise public awareness of the recreational opportunities and beauty of urban and suburban waterways in hopes of raising a "next generation of stewards" of the environment.

Milling around Baugh at Big Timber Creek Marina, chatting with one another or crouching over their yellow, two-person, 22-foot "expedition" kayaks, were an engineer, an oceanographer, a boat builder, a "green architect," the president of a New York-based philanthropic foundation, two employees of the William Penn Foundation, several members of the Upstream Alliance, the president of Philadelphia's Independence Seaport Museum, and Brian DuVall, CEO of the Center for Aquatic Sciences at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden.

"These waterways run through urban and suburban areas that are just as important as the Pinelands," DuVall said, "because their water flows into the Delaware and ultimately the Atlantic. So these streams help define the quality of the Delaware, and ultimately of the oceans."

Kate Boicourt, program manager for the Waterfront Alliance, based in South Street Seaport in Manhattan, said the weekend paddle trip is "very relevant to us" because her group is focused on developing "waterfront-edge design guidelines" for the interface of urban areas and their waterways. Called WEDG, the guidelines are similar, she said, to LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, standards used to encourage and recognize creation of "green" buildings.

"It's useful to compare what other urban waterfronts are doing," Boicourt said, "and to see how they deal with their challenges."

Another one of the paddlers was Walter Brown, president of the New York-based Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation, which supports oceanography and marine science education nationwide. "I come down here a lot," said Brown, who recently completed a 500-mile circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula.

Shortly before 11 a.m., the paddlers posed for a group photo and then started launching their kayaks from a floating dock. Once launched, eight kayaks  rafted up for another group photo and gradually started slipping down the river.

Despite their laughter and good spirits, Baugh was emphatic that "this is a genuine investigation" of the Philadelphia region's connections with its waterways, and that the day's examination of the mussel population would be revealing.

"The water is the memory of the land," he said, "and mussels are a great memory of the water."

About four p.m. the group landed at a spit of sand near the mouth of the Big Timber at the Delaware. There they found the shells of five mussel species, including two -- the eastern pondmussel  and the tidewater mucket -- that are considered threatened.

"It's a good sign," said Genevieve Leet, special projects director for Upstream Alliance. "It's more than we expected."