Hope Lugo, 17, who takes Camden residents on kayak trips along the Cooper River, said local paddlers are often surprised.

“They don’t believe there is something as beautiful as this in their city,” said Lugo, a river guide for UrbanPromise, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership in children and young adults. “But we need people to not pollute as much.”

If Lugo and a group of Camden County officials have their way, the state might help with that.

On Friday, local officials and environmental groups urged the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to assign a two-mile stretch of the Cooper River a higher level of protection, citing not only an increased level of recreational use on the waterway, but more important, the discovery of an endangered species living within it.

The state is currently proposing to upgrade the level of protection for 749 miles of waterways — including the Cooper River — from Category Two, the lowest designation, to Category One. The state has three levels of classification for freshwater streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes: Outstanding National Resource Waters, which is the most protective tier, followed by Category One and Category Two.

If the effort is successful, the Cooper River would become the first urban waterway with a Category One designation.

The state is proposing to upgrade the tidal portion of the Cooper River from Route 30 (Admiral Wilson Boulevard) above the dam to the confluence with the Delaware River in Camden because of the discovery of the Eastern pondmussel, a mussel species listed as threatened in the state.

Camden County and municipal officials are urging the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to give a two-mile stretch of the Cooper River a higher level of protection, citing not only the high level of recreational use, but also the discovery of an endangered species, the Eastern pondmussel.
Environment New Jersey / Google Maps
Camden County and municipal officials are urging the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to give a two-mile stretch of the Cooper River a higher level of protection, citing not only the high level of recreational use, but also the discovery of an endangered species, the Eastern pondmussel.

But the state isn’t expected to make a decision on which waterways to include until spring.

So officials, including Pennsauken Mayor Betsy McBride, held a news conference Friday urging the DEP to include the Cooper River segment. Groups such as the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, UrbanPromise, and Environment New Jersey also spoke at the news conference.

Pennsauken Mayor Betsy McBride speaks on the importance of the Cooper River, with wooden canoe in the foreground.
FRANK KUMMER / Staff
Pennsauken Mayor Betsy McBride speaks on the importance of the Cooper River, with wooden canoe in the foreground.

The Cooper River is considered an impaired waterway, meaning it is polluted. It is also a part of the Delaware River Watershed, itself the subject of public and private cleanup efforts.

The river, which runs about 16 miles, bubbles up underground near Gibbsboro from the Potomac-Raritan-Magothy aquifer, according to Fred Stine of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Also fed by storm water, it runs through heavily populated Camden County towns such as Haddonfield, Cherry Hill, Collingswood, and Pennsauken before reaching Camden.

A Category One designation would mean the segment of the Cooper River closest to the Delaware would get additional protection, such as the requirement of a 300-foot buffer against development, tougher standards for discharges from businesses and sewage treatment plants, and also more monitoring.

“The Cooper River does have a history of poor water quality,” said Sophia Hull, of Environment New Jersey. “That’s why this particular section proposed for the upgrade is so exciting.”

She said the presence of the Eastern pondmussel indicates the river is rebounding and efforts to curb pollution are paying off.

Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young said the river was so polluted in the 1950s and 1960s that 40% of it was raw sewage. That pollution has been reduced by 90% since the Clean Water Act was enacted in the 1970s, he said, and recreation now abounds around an extensive park system that includes the Cooper River Lake, noted for its rowing course.

“Cooper River is the heart of Camden County,” Young said.