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April 15, 2020

Delaware River named 2020 River of the Year by national environmental organization

Nature Rivers
Delaware River 2020 Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Delaware River, pictured above from Philadelphia's Penn Treaty Park, was named the 2020 River of the Year by environmental organization American Rivers.

A national organization dedicated the protection of rivers in the United States has named the Delaware River its 2020 River of the Year.

American Rivers, founded in 1973 during an expansion of federal environmental protection, released an annual report this week detailing the state of major rivers across the country.

The Delaware River was recognized for its dramatic turnaround over the last 75 years, which saw pollution levels decline and the resurgence of wildlife under dedicated management to restore the waterway.

The Delaware River flows nearly 400 miles and drains more than 14,000 square miles of land in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. It serves as a source of drinking water for both New York City and Philadelphia. Today, the economic impact of the watershed tops $22.5 billion per year in recreation, hunting and fishing, water quality and supply, ecotourism, agriculture, open space and ports.

By the middle of the 20th century, industrial activity had reduced parts of the Delaware River to dead zones. Its stench was unbearable and wildlife was depleted.

"The river’s water was so foul that it would turn the paint of ships brown as they traveled through or were docked for any period of time," the Delaware River Basin Commission, which was formed in 1961, once wrote of the river.

Through enforcement of clean water safeguards and careful stewardship through multi-state collaboration, the river was restored and fisheries revitalized. Dissolved oxygen rates fell and phosphorous levels declined fourfold in a 30-year span. Atlantic sturgeon, striped rock bass, white perch and American shad all returned to the river.

The report credits Philadelphia's efforts in the 21st century for helping continue the restoration of the Delaware.

“Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program was one of the first and best municipal level restoration projects to help curb urban runoff," the report says. "The program, which started as a response to regulatory oversight, has inspired cities across the nation to integrate nature-based solutions into their water infrastructure management programs."

The program in Philadelphia, built on public-private partnerships and incentivized construction, introduced rain gardens and green roofs to manage stormwater runoff that otherwise overflowed the water treatment system and resulted in flood damage, river pollution and erosion.

"Today, thanks to a combination of federal and state regulations and local innovation, the Delaware is a river reborn — and a model for other river restoration efforts across the country," the report says.

Philadelphia and regional partners have increasingly looked to redevelop the Delaware River Waterfront in recent years, planning a number of parks and trails to build on the community and economic benefits of the river. Among other projects, the city is planning a public park that will cap Interstate 95 near Penn's Landing.

American Rivers lists several recommendations to ensure that the future of the Delaware River remains protected.

"While communities along the Delaware should take great pride in the river’s progress, important work remains to be done," the report says. "Continued action is critical to address ongoing challenges, such as aging water infrastructure, urban development and climate change."