Petition Seeks DRBC Action To Upgrade River Designation To Ensure Full Protection for Primary Contact Recreation Uses

Media Contacts

Environment New Jersey

Philadelphia/Camden/West Trenton:  A coalition of organizations have petitioned the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to upgrade the regulatory status and protections for the Philadelphia/Camden reach of the Delaware River. The initiative seeks to ensure that water quality standards governing the river provide protections to those that come into direct contact with the water during recreational activities.  According to the petition, the identified river reaches are heavily used in ways that bring people into direct contact with the water, including children. As a result, according to the environmental petitioners, the DRBC and the states should modify the existing legally designated uses to reflect the actual existing uses of the river. This action, the petitioners contend, is needed in order to ensure those recreating on the river receive the proper level of protection from pollution now and into the future.

“The Delaware River is a valued public resource, it is a resource that belongs to the people.  Communities should be able to enjoy swimming, fishing, boating and utilizing the River for recreation knowing that our government officials are recognizing these uses and ensuring they are protected under the law for both present and future generations,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.  “We know that communities throughout the region are right now enjoying the River in ways that bring them into direct contact with the water.  All we are asking is for the DRBC to recognize this use and to ensure that standards are in place that are ensuring the ongoing protection of these uses.  All of the other reaches of the mainstem are protected for primary contact recreation, the urban reaches should be protected too.”

“Upgrading the water quality standards for this section of the Delaware River will not only make the river safer for the many people who recreate there now, but would represent a broader win for the health and safety of the public and the environment for generations to come,” said Joe Minott, Executive Director of the Clean Air Council.

“The Clean Water Act requires that our waters be protected for the way that people actually use them,” said PennFuture president and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo. “This petition presents clear evidence and support that the community actually uses the urban sections of the Delaware River for things like swimming, tubing, and jet skiing. Because these uses put people, including children, in direct contact with the water, it is imperative that the DRBC and the states protect the water quality of this section of the river for primary contact. Ensuring the safety of our communities to use these waters for primary contact recreation is the legal responsibility of the DRBC.”

“The transformation of the lower Delaware River over the last 50 years is a direct testament to the power of the Clean Water Act to clean up our waterways. Yet the Act’s original vision to protect waterways based on how the public uses them isn’t being fulfilled in the lower Delaware – and that’s why the DRBC should act to meet the vision of the Clean Water Act,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “As water quality has improved along the Lower Delaware, the public is voting with their feet and their bodies – people are recreating in the Delaware. As our cities and river towns revive and access to the water is seen as a premium, the DRBC should protect the lower Delaware River for primary contact. The Delaware River should not be treated as a regulatory mixing zone – it is the people’s river and the DRBC should protect it for all recreational uses based on the Clean Water Act.”

The petition seeks to secure higher protections from River Mile 108, near the mouth of the Pompeston Creek, down to river mile 81.8, near the Commodore Barry Bridge – currently this reach of River is designated only for secondary contact recreation.  According to the petition, because this reach of river is heavily used in ways that bring people in direct contact with the water, the DRBC is legally obligated to recognize the primary contact uses and put in place higher standards that ensure protection of human health.  Survey results and data included in the petition demonstrate that the affected reach of the river is used for swimming, snorkeling, tubing, and jet skiing; it is also used by a wide variety of organizations such as the health and wellness organization Aqua Vida for paddleboard yoga, acro and fitness classes; and educational organizations such as Urban Promise that brings young people to the river for kayaking who, given their inexperience in paddling, do come into direct contact in the water. 

“The Delaware River is an iconic part of the region’s natural heritage where visitors from throughout the Mid Atlantic and across the nation come to boat, fish, swim, hike and recreate, ” noted PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur. “The action we’re taking today is a crucial step to ensure that we can restore and protect the Delaware River now and for future generations.” 

“Our right to clean water has been denied since the industrial era. Although our water policies helped to improve some of the most egregious forms of pollution it has not gone far enough to clean up our shared resource. With the latest technology and science there is no reason why we can’t clean up the Delaware River,” said Jaclyn Rhoads, President of the Darby Creek Valley Association.

The petition explains that “secondary contact” recreation refers to activities where the probability of significant contact or water ingestion is minimal – according to federal regulation this includes things like boating and activities where people are expected to have limited contact with surface waters such as fishing from the shoreline. “Primary contact” recreation includes activities where people engage, or are likely to engage, in activities that could result in ingestion of, or immersion in, water, such as swimming and water-skiing.

“We strongly support the initiatives laid out in this petition. A stronger designation for these portions of the Delaware Estuary will ensure the water quality is optimal for recreational use. On-water organizations such as ours highly value clean water as we want our audiences to have the safest, most enjoyable river experience possible,” said Rupika Ketu, Environmental Program Coordinator for Glen Foerd on the Delaware.

“The increase of recreational boating along the Delaware River in Camden and Philly is a poster child for the Clean Water Act working. Now DRBC needs to lock in those improvements decades in the making especially in the face of attacks from a polluter friendly Administration,” stated NJ State Director Amy Goodsmith of Clean Water Action, which was founded in 1972 to watchdog implementation of the Clean Water Act by one of the lead citizen activists, David Zwicker, that helped secure its passage.

The petition closes by urging: “Failure to recognize and protect the primary contact recreation uses taking place in the River today puts the health and safety of our River communities and river users at risk. The DRBC has the authority to initiate the necessary changes to accurately reflect the uses and activities that are actually taking place in the Delaware Estuary and in so doing to protect the communities that enjoy and depend upon a healthy Delaware River, including in Zones 3 and Upper Zone 4.”