Cooper River Alive: Advocates, Camden Co. Officials Urge Support for 1st Ever Designation of Urban Waterway For NJDEP Category One Protection

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Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center

Pennsauken – On the 47th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act, advocates, elected officials and Camden County officials joined together on the banks of the Cooper River at Gateway Park, showing public support for the first ever designation of an urban waterway to Category One protection status by the NJDEP. The proposal was sparked by improving water quality, which led to the discovery of an endangered species, the Eastern Pond Mussel. A two-mile portion of the tidal section of the Cooper River that runs just downstream of Gateway Park, from Route 30 to the Delaware River, is proposed for a Category One upgrade by NJDEP under the Surface Water Quality Standards. This upgrade would provide important safeguards against pollution, ensuring the current level of water quality in the Cooper River cannot be measurably degraded.

“The Cooper River is a poster child for why we passed the Clean Water Act and how the Act has succeeded. In a generation, we have gone from the river serving as a dead zone to being a living part of Camden County communities,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center. “The proposed designation of the Cooper River to be a Category One waterway by NJDEP is historic, as it will be the first urban waterway to receive this protection. If mussels and bald eagles are coming back to the Cooper, so should the public. We urge NJDEP to finalize these protections and expand protections to more waterways that provide real recreational value to their communities.”

This section of the Cooper River is part of a larger proposal calling for 749 miles of waterways across the state to receive these upgrades. This is the first time in more than 10 years that NJDEP is has proposed waterways for increased protections under the Surface Water Quality Standards. Category One status is granted to waterways with high water quality for a variety of reasons, including exceptional ecological significance and exceptional recreational significance. The proposals are under review and a final decision is expected early next year.

“The Clean Water Act was passed, in part, because the nation had finally begun to reckon with the destructive potential that human activity could have on our natural resources,” said Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young. “We have made significant strides to improve waterways throughout Camden County, but we must continue to seek action in order to protect them from future contamination and pollution.”

“It is vitally important that the Murphy Administration and NJDEP are proposing regulations to protect additional waterways across New Jersey from harm.  This is a positive and proactive step that will help ensure present and future generations here in New Jersey get all of the benefits healthy streams, rivers and ecosystems provide,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.  “Waterways across the state are being harmed by ongoing pollution inputs from pipes, development, and the loss of protective wetlands, forests and buffers.  C-1 protection is vital for ensuring that our still healthy streams stay healthy so we can avoid the harm, heartache, and cost of having to restore them to health after the damage is done. Healthy streams and nature enrich our lives, protect our health and safety, and strengthen our economy; C1 protection for an additional 749 streams will help ensure we in New Jersey can secure these important benefits.”

This upgrade would be particularly meaningful here on the Cooper River, given its history of water pollution and the role it plays in the community today. Just 30 years ago, this section of the Cooper River faced major pollution issues, including massive amount of discharges of raw sewage after major rain events. Camden City, Camden County and the surrounding communities have worked hard to clean up the Cooper and make it a resource to its residents.

“The water quality improvements on the Cooper River have helped the local community and national rowing community. After the projects were completed and as more continues to happen, it makes the water much more appealing to be around and race down the course.  The local rowing community has noticed our equipment coming in cleaner on a regular basis as the iron levels and other minerals have been much lower. I also do a lot of hands on work in the river and it has made for a much easier task knowing I can see a little clearer in the river and not leave with as much of a scent when headed home,” said Jamie Stack, Camden County Boathouse Manager/Rowing Operations.

Other groups, like Urban Promise, work to connect students with the river. Jim Cummings, Director of Experiential Learning at Urban Promise, and several students attended the event. Jim shared a conversation he had with one student, Chris Williams, while paddling under the Federal Street Bridge. “Mr. C, I feel like a tourist in my own city. I ride over this bridge twice each day on the bus bringing [me] to and from school and I’ve never seen Camden the way I see it now.” Another student, Yasiria Lugo, who has been employed as a RiverGuide for the past two summers at Urban Promise says “most people think Camden is a bad and violent city. It is not. I’m proud to be from Camden…this program has changed my life.” The improved water quality of the Cooper River has enabled and fostered these strong connections and sense of pride within the community.

“Healthy rivers connect people, communities and nature,” said Sophia Hull, Clean Water Associate at Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center. “47 years ago, the Clean Water Act was passed with the goal that everyone has a right to access clean waterways. Today, for the first time in more than 10 years, rivers across the state are on the verge of receiving antidegradation protections through Category One status upgrades. This is something to celebrate.”

Fred Stine, Citizen Action Coordinator at the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, concluded the celebration by urging people across the state to connect with the rivers in their area ready for a C1 upgrade: “The recommendation to raise the water quality standards of 749 waterways to Category One is something that the residents throughout New Jersey should celebrate. What better way is there to celebrate healthier rivers than to go outside and enjoy them. There is a Category One, or “C1” waterway, near you. So go, go outside today and celebrate all the state’s “C1s” by going out to “see one.”  



Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We work to protect the places we love, advance the environmental values we share, and win real results for our environment.