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Sewage overflow stifling river recreation: Philadelphia’s water woes
Water

Sewage overflow stifling river recreation: Philadelphia’s water woes

PennEnvironment study highlights contaminants’ effects on equitable river access

The Delaware River has a Pollution Problem

A PennEnviroment report explains exactly how polluted the river is and how often the water is safe for recreation

The Floatopia jury has spoken: Philadelphians want to get out on the water, but the Delaware River and the bodies of water that run into it have trouble staying clean.

A new report from PennEnvironment reveals that the local Delaware Watershed is polluted enough to prohibit water access for almost half the year.

A combined sewer system services 60% of the city, and stormwater and sewage flow through the same pipes and to the same treatment plant. This occurs after significant rainfall, forcing the unsafe water to flow into the waterways.

Fifteen billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater every year, and right near locations that people like to access the water––Bartram’s Garden, Cobbs Creek Park, Tacony Creek Park, and spots along the Delaware. This means that, on average, there are  128 days worth of polluted water. 

A map shows where the worst discharge is as well as their proximity to water recreation areas. According to 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.”

The lack of clean water only contributes to the disparities people in the Philadelphia and Camden area face. The interactive map shows how polluted runoff is concentrated in areas where those residents would access the water, ideal for access to water activities. Valerie Onifade, the River Program Director at Bartram’s Garden, explains that the area around the Schuylkill River entices people to get in the water, since it’s calmer than other rivers. “Unfortunately, because of the CSOs that impact the river around us,” she says, “the sewage and pollutants create unsafe river conditions and require us to cancel frequently – about a quarter of our programs.”

Wein confirms.“There have been days when I’ve gone down to Bartram’s Garden and been told that it’s a dirty water day, that I can’t go in. On other days, I get there before 10am, and the kayaks are all gone,” she explains.

Why does this happen in the most popular places? Three plants make up the majority of the pollution, and the rest of the city has separate pipes (though rainfall can still cause overflow). Another factor is the runoff from streets and parking lots, which is often unavoidable. One day of overflow can cause unsafe conditions for up to three days.

“People want to get out on the Schuylkill,” explains Wein. Unfortunately, from July 2021 to June 2022, the Schuylkill was only accessible for about 200 days. 

Within the last ten years, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the EPA brought actions against Philadelphia, since it continues to violate the Clean Water Act. As a result, the city committed to a 25-year plan, which has made some changes. The city now has rain gardens, tree trenches, and other measures to absorb extra stormwater, and it has even repaired leaky pipes but it still has a ways to go to control the runoff.

The PennEnvironment report recommends action to continue to improve on the progress  to make the waterways more accessible: These actions include:

  • Stop the discharge of untreated sewage into local waterways – including improvements in infrastructure and more rapid deployment of green infrastructure to capture stormwater that causes combined overflows.
  • Using netting other methods to capture waste from CSO outfalls
  • Halt all dry-weather sewage discharges, which are illegal under the Clean Water Act
  • Develop five new access points for swimming and boating along the city’s rivers and streams within the next four years.
  • Advocate for more clean water funding

Cover photo: Upstream Alliance


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Tonya Russell covers mental health, culture, and wellness. She is an avid runner, yogi, and traveler, and she resides in the Philadelphia area with her four fur babies and fiancé. Follow her on Instagram (@_ajourneytofit_) and Twitter (@thetonyarussell). View all posts by Tonya Russell
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