By Andrew Kricun, Senior Advisor
The Water Center at Penn
March 19, 2020
The Delaware River is one of the most important and scenic rivers in the United States. And, nearly all of it is available to the public for recreational activities – all of it, except for the zone between Philadelphia and Chester. The Water Center at Penn, the William Penn Foundation and several invested stakeholders, including environmentalists, dischargers, recreational advocates and regulators, are working together to develop a roadmap that would identify the most beneficial steps to improve water quality in this important zone of the Delaware and, ultimately result in a recreational designation.
Thus far, available data suggest that the water quality of the Delaware is significantly worse during wet weather events. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that Camden, Chester, Philadelphia and Gloucester City all have combined sewer systems. A combined sewer system is one in which the stormwater and sewage are collected in one pipe and conveyed to a wastewater treatment plant. This was the state of the art for sewer systems in the late 19th century, prior to the advent of the automobile. Since most of a city’s surface was not paved, but was pervious in the late 19th century, most of the rainwater soaked into the ground. However, after the advent of the automobile, and the corresponding addition of paved roads, parking lots, garages, driveways, etc., a significant proportion of the city’s surface was now impervious. Consequently, rainwater that used to soak into the ground now went, and still goes, into the combined sewer system. As a result, the pipes originally designed for a low contribution of rainwater are now undersized, and the excess combined sewage, albeit somewhat diluted by the rainwater, overflows into the receiving body of water, the Delaware River.
Camden, Chester, Gloucester City, and Philadelphia all have plans to address their combined sewer systems and reduce their potential impact upon the Delaware River and its upstream tributaries. These plans include green infrastructure components to reduce impervious surface and thereby ensure that more rainwater soaks into the ground and less is diverted into the sewer system. Philadelphia is one of the leading innovators of green infrastructure in the country and has already implemented a great number of projects. Camden has implemented a significant number of green infrastructure projects as well.
In addition, all four cities have plans to undertake significant grey infrastructure projects, including upgrades to sewer systems and sewage treatment plants. Collectively, these green and grey infrastructure projects will reduce combined sewage overflows into the Delaware River and result in a corresponding improvement to its water quality.
With this background, the Water Center at Penn intends to create a roadmap to a recreational designation for the 27-mile stretch of the Delaware River from Philadelphia and Camden to Chester that would consist of three main components. The first component would be to characterize the current condition of the Delaware River with respect to water quality, both during dry weather and wet weather. This would accomplish two important outcomes, 1) it would identify when the water quality in the Delaware is safe enough for recreational activities, and 2) it would provide a safety warning to potential users to alert them when the water quality would not meet the water quality standards for safe use. It would also provide stakeholders with a baseline of where we are with respect to water quality, how far we have come thanks to improvements already implemented and how far we still need to go.
The second component of the roadmap for the Delaware River would involve a sensitivity analysis of all of the combined sewer facility improvements already committed to by Camden, Chester, Gloucester, and Philadelphia, but not, as of yet, implemented. Specifically, this would show which planned improvements would have the most positive impact upon water quality and therefore, correspondingly, on recreational availability. The roadmap would also estimate the cost of each planned project so that all stakeholders can see the corresponding cost and benefit associated with each planned/committed action. Lastly, the roadmap would predict the total impact on water quality, and corresponding recreational access, when all of the planned projects have been completed, thus revealing how far the current commitments will take us toward recreational access at all times. It should be reiterated that these projects have already been committed to by the four aforementioned cities, either through permits, approved plans, consent agreements, etc. So implementation of these projects would not cost the dischargers any additional money. However, the report may identify some projects that have especially high water quality benefit to cost ratios that perhaps ought to be given higher priority accordingly.
The third and final component of the report would be a gap analysis to identify possible opportunities, beyond what has already been committed to, to further improve water quality, with corresponding estimates of both projected cost and benefits. The goal of the roadmap is, in addition to the benefits described above, to provide a science and fact-based menu of projects, both already committed to and not, with a corresponding cost and benefit analysis for each. This would allow all stakeholders to work together with a common basis of information to determine the best path forward for this zone of the Delaware River, on a triple bottom line basis of (in alphabetical order!) community benefits, cost, and environmental benefits.
The Water Center at Penn, and its fellow stakeholders and partners, see this project as an important step toward the ultimate goal of restoring Philadelphia’s zone of the Delaware River to recreational status. We are very excited about this opportunity and look forward to working with all stakeholders on this important initiative.
Andrew Kricun is a Senior Advisor at the Water Center at Penn working on various projects related to the Delaware River watershed. He is also a Senior Fellow with the US Water Alliance and a Senior Director with Moonshot Missions. Previously Andy was the Executive Director and Chief Engineer of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, overseeing an 80 million gallon per day wastewater treatment plant in Camden, NJ. He graduated with honors from Princeton University with a degree in chemical engineering, holds a professional engineer’s license in civil engineering and is a board-certified environmental engineer. Andy serves on the New Jersey Environmental Justice Advisory Council and served on the board of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies as the chair of its Utility of the Future and Environmental Justice committees. He was the recipient of the Praxis Award for Professional Ethics, the President’s Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the One Water Prize from the US Water Alliance and the Environmental Quality Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Andy was also chosen as Governmental Engineer Of The Year by the NJ Chapter American Society of Civil Engineers in 2018.