Report: Raw sewage pollutes most Philadelphia rivers, streams at least one third of year

Media Contacts
Stephanie Wein

Water and Conservation Advocate, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

Daniel Brown

Former Western Pennsylvania Field Organizer, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

New interactive map shows Philly neighborhoods, riverfronts with largest sewer overflows


PHILADELPHIA – Philadelphia’s combined sewer system releases an average of 15 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater each year into local rivers and streams, according to a new report by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, Sewage Pollution in Philadelphia: Bolder action needed to make local waterways consistently clean for recreation. As people look to enjoy the city’s waterways this summer, the new report shows where and how often this pollution deprives residents of water recreation opportunities. In addition, an interactive map lets the public see the locations of the worst sewage discharges in the city and the recreation areas they impact.

From the tiniest tributaries of the Schuylkill to the mighty Delaware, people love to walk, hike, boat, fish and sometimes even swim in and around Philly’s amazing waterways,” said Stephanie Wein, clean water advocate at the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. “While the city has made efforts to address  the massive flow of raw sewage, this problem still puts public health at risk on far too many days of the year.”

Using self-reported data from the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), the report confirms a severe sewage overflow problem in the city:

  •  Frequent sewer overflows deprive Philadelphia residents of water recreation opportunities on most local waterways for an average of 128 or more days each year
  • Philly’s rivers and streams received an average of 15 billion gallons of combined sewer overflows (CSO) per year. The worst 10 of the 164 CSO outfalls in the PWD system accounted for roughly 50 percent of this pollution;

“The Tidal Schuylkill River is a great location for people to get introduced to the river, because it tends to be a calmer portion of the river. At Bartram’s we have a public, ADA–accessible dock that makes launching out even easier,” share Valerie Onifade, River Program Director at Bartram’s Garden. “Unfortunately, because of the CSOs that impact the river around us, the sewage and pollutants create unsafe river conditions and require us to cancel on a frequent basis – about a quarter of our programs.” 

Philadelphia City Councilmember Mark Squilla added, “I appreciate all the work PWD is doing to reduce combined sewage overflows. We must do more so that our generations to come can recreate on safe, clean waters.”

Sewage and runoff pollution often contain pathogens that can pose health hazards for people playing on the water. In fact, public health experts estimate more than 86 million cases of illness each year from swimming, boating and fishing in polluted U.S. waters. These illnesses include nausea, diarrhea, ear infections, and rashes. 

Representative Mary Isaacson added, “As the Representative for the riverwards along the Delaware, we must ensure the health and safety of the River for generations to come by limiting pollution through all means possible.”

While Philadelphia has made significant efforts to reduce its sewage pollution over the past decade, the volume and frequency of overflows remain stubbornly high. Moreover, the city’s incremental progress could be eroded by increased rainfall in future years. To achieve sewage-free waters that are consistently safe for recreation, the report recommends action at all levels of government:

  • The city of Philadelphia must dramatically accelerate and expand efforts to stop the discharge of untreated sewage into local waterways;
  • Suburban communities and industrial users must drastically curb their wastewater flows to Philadelphia’s sewer system and/or contribute more resources to solve the problem; and
  • Federal and Pennsylvania state officials must ensure that Philadelphia has access to the resources it will take to ensure a clean and healthy Delaware River watershed for the region. 

“Philadelphia is a river city, and being able to access and use it for recreation will bring tremendous benefits to our communities,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “We can ensure that every day is a river day by cleaning up the sewage pollution from CSOs. We must take advantage of the current federal funding for this effort, which can provide us with clean water, jobs and justice.

“With the President in Philly today,” concluded Wein, “residents are hopeful that his agenda, and the investments of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will bring in additional resources to help finally clean up our sewers.”