Timeline: The Delaware River and the Clean Water Act

A view of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Delaware River (Ashley Hahn/PlanPhilly, file)

Reviving the Delaware River took decades and came about through a combination of social need, public outcry, and political will. Regional efforts like the formation of the Delaware River Basin Commission helped bring the issue of water quality to the forefront, but nothing quite had the impact of the Clean Water Act, which not only regulated what could go into the river but also offered federal dollars to fix the problems.

Here, we look at the history of the Delaware River and its watershed through the eyes of the Clean Water Act.

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Shad fishermen loading their half-mile of net on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress, 1905 ca.)
Shad fishermen loading their half-mile of net on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress, 1905 ca.)
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1880s to early 1900s: The Delaware River as the Nation’s Shad Capital

Shad were once plentiful in the Delaware River, and shad fishing was a valuable regional industry. At the turn of the twentieth century, approximately 16 million shad were caught each spring on the Delaware River, with an income value of $149 million in today’s dollars.

In June 1929, hundreds of herring washed ashore at the Biddle estate at Torresdale. The largest fish, near the can, is a four-pound shad, a rarity in the river at that time. The fish died after being exposed to a toxic oil spill from a tanker on the Delaware. The fish decayed in the hot sun, and the smell forced people from their homes. (Temple Archives)
In June 1929, hundreds of herring washed ashore at the Biddle estate at Torresdale. The largest fish, near the can, is a four-pound shad, a rarity in the river at that time. The fish died after being exposed to a toxic oil spill from a tanker on the Delaware. The fish decayed in the hot sun, and the smell forced people from their homes. (Temple Archives)

1920s: Pollution Kills the Fish

By the 1920s, shad had been nearly eliminated due to pollution and overfishing. Cities were dumping their sewage directly into the river, and the bacteria in that sewage gobbled up all of the oxygen in the water, leaving little to none for fish and aquatic life, particularly between Philadelphia and Marcus Hook.

Migratory fish like the shad would die before they could reach the upper Delaware to lay their eggs — and if they somehow made it through, the baby fish wouldn’t be able to make it back down river. Other fish like herring and bass also died off due to lack of oxygen and pollution.

Decomposed matter floats on the river above Greenwich Point near South Philadelphia in July 1944. (Temple archives)
Decomposed matter floats on the river above Greenwich Point near South Philadelphia in July 1944. (Temple archives)

1940s: A River You Could Smell from the Sky

During WWII, industries along the river ramped up production to aid the war effort, and any efforts to improve sewage treatment were tabled, as money was tied up in funding the war. Personnel of both Russian and British naval vessels complained that the odor of the Delaware made it impossible for them to eat their meals while docked there. A US Army pilot claimed he could smell the river from 5,000 feet in the air.

Governors Robert Meyner of New Jersey, Elbert Carvel of Delaware, and David Lawrence of Pennsylvania joined President John F. Kennedy at the White House on November 2, 1961, to participate in a ceremonial signing of the Delaware River Basin Compact. (DRBC)
Governors Robert Meyner of New Jersey, Elbert Carvel of Delaware, and David Lawrence of Pennsylvania joined President John F. Kennedy at the White House on November 2, 1961, to participate in a ceremonial signing of the Delaware River Basin Compact. (DRBC)

1961: The DRBC is Formed

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Delaware River Basin Compact creating the Delaware River Basin Commission. It included all four states — PA, NJ, NY, and DE — as well as the federal government, making it the first federal-state organization to address river planning, development and regulation.

The DRBC rolled out programs to regularly test the river for pollution and set goals and standards for industry and municipal wastewater treatment plants. However, many of the plans were hampered by a lack of federal funds.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River, 1952. Many such fires occurred on the river before the Clean Water Act. (The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University)
Fire on the Cuyahoga River, 1952. Many such fires occurred on the river before the Clean Water Act. (The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University)

1969: A River Catches Fire

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire after sparks from a passing train lit oil-slicked debris ablaze. The river had, in fact, caught fire many times in the preceding decades, but by 1969, a growing populist environmental movement was afoot. Many cite the 1969 fire as the turning event that forced Congress to pass the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Earth Week crowd in Philadelphia, including a young girl wearing a
Earth Week crowd in Philadelphia, including a young girl wearing a "Let Me Grow Up” sign on her back, relaxes in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Wednesday, April 23, 1970. The crowd, made up mostly of young people, was estimated at more than 20,000 persons.  (AP Photo)

1970s: Change Comes Fast

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a bill creating the EPA. On April 22 that year, some 20 million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day in rallies across the country, demanding policies for a clean environment.  

Two years later, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, which together became known as the Clean Water Act. President Nixon vetoed the bill, but within a day the House and Senate overrode the veto and the bill became law. 

The law made it illegal to dump any pollutant into waterways without a permit from the EPA and set wastewater standards for industry. It also required wastewater treatment plants to upgrade to secondary treatment — meaning disinfection — and created a program whereby the federal government would fund 75 percent of those upgrades.  

Philadelphia's Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant. This plant, along with the Southeast plant, was upgraded to secondary treatment in the 1980s. (PWD archival photo)
Philadelphia's Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant. This plant, along with the Southeast plant, was upgraded to secondary treatment in the 1980s. (PWD archival photo)

1980s: Sewage Plant Upgrades

Between 1981 and 1986, Philadelphia’s Southeast and Southwest sewage treatment plants were upgraded to secondary treatment, using biological science to treat wastewater before discharging it into the river. The Northeast treatment plant had already been upgraded in 1951.

The Delaware River near the Neshaminy State Marina in 2018. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
The Delaware River near the Neshaminy State Marina in 2018. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Today: A Cleaner River…with Risks You Can’t See

Today, the state of the Delaware River has vastly improved. No longer rancid-smelling and covered in scum, the river draws tourists and locals for regular festivals and events along the waterfront. Fish like shad and bass have returned, and some fishermen say 2018 was the best shad run they’ve ever seen. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has raised nearly $30 million for capital projects to develop the waterfront into a destination. But despite the improvements, there are new threats to water quality, ones that can’t be seen with the naked eye. So-called contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) like pharmaceuticals and personal care products, PFAS/PFOA, and microplastics, as well as the overarching menace of climate change, all jeopardize the water quality in the Delaware, and the Clean Water Act does not address any of those concerns.

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