The Delaware River: A Clean Water Act Success Story

A cormorant perches on a log in the Brandywine Creek in Wilmington.
Image via Emma Lee, WHYY

Back in the 1960s, if you measured the oxygen level from the water in the Delaware River, it would read zero, writes Susan Phillips for WHYY.

The dead zone ran from Philadelphia to about 25 miles downriver to Marcus Hook.

It meant that migratory fish like shad could not breed.

Fisheries, plentiful caviar, and sturgeon disappeared, taking with them a regional industry once worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

It was an unappealing river until the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act came along in the early 1970s.

Those acts helped clean up industrial pollutants and sewage in the Delaware River in the 1970s and 1980s.

Deb McCarty, Philadelphia’s former water commissioner, said the Clean Water Act transformed the river from a “stinky ugly mess” into a year-round attraction that now has beer gardens, yoga classes, pleasure boats, and million-dollar houses along its shores.

A big help was the $900 million federal dollars to modernize the city’s three treatment plants, a massive building project for its day.

Today, the treated sewage water from those plants is actually cleaner than what the Clean Water Act requires.

Read more about the Clean Water Act and cleaning up the Delaware River at WHYY.

See the connection between the Philadelphia Phillies and Delaware River mud.

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