Blog: Testimony to the PA DEP regarding the Triennial Review

November 14, 2023


[This statement is part of Riverways’ work advocating for policies and decisions by government agencies to increase protections of our waterways and overall environmental health. A similar version was submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection  on November 14, 2023 as part of their requests for comments on the 2023 Triennial Review (summary document here, all documents at this website for July 11 meeting), a review of 3 years of recent data that leads to changing the designated use of a water body or its listed impairment, and potential for redesignating them. Riverways also submitted comments as an organization!]

My name is Stefanie Kroll, I live in East Passyunk Crossing, in South Philadelphia.

I have a PhD in Ecology, specializing in the effects of human activities on watersheds and aquatic ecosystems. I have studied watersheds for over 15 years, and specifically the Delaware River Watershed for the last 10. and I work at Riverways Collaboration of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia and as an independent contractor supporting environmental nonprofits. I am also a co-founder of a new Community Environmental Action Group, EnviroPhilly. I’m testifying as an individual with expertise on this subject and situation.

I think it’s essential for the DEP to remove the exemption and designate the 27-mile stretch of the Delaware River around Philadelphia and Camden for primary recreation. 

The recent plans to reduce ammonia discharge from wastewater treatment plants will greatly help with raising oxygen levels. Otherwise, there is a clear cause of the remaining pollution- combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Philadelphia’s sewers are combined in terms of mixing sewage with road runoff. Philadelphia Water Department annual reports indicate that the combined sewers overflow nearly every time it rains, bypassing the wastewater treatment plant and discharging raw sewage into our rivers.  It’s 2023– I can’t believe that we have to convince people that discharging raw sewage into our rivers is unacceptable. Today, we have technologies, including natural ones like bacteria and other microorganisms, which can break down virtually every contaminant, including plastics, chemicals at highly polluted superfund sites, and even PFAS (“Forever chemicals”; Per- and PolyFluoroAlkyl Substances). And, while they may not all be developed at scale, they do exist. Constructed wetlands, holding tanks and other grey infrastructure can be used to capture water for tertiary treatment and to help with stormwater capture. In the past, we have said the problem is too complicated, so urban rivers have been held to lower water quality and environmental health standards. But today, we can and should re-evaluate this approach, and stop settling for polluted rivers in our cities when the problem is solvable. 

Not only is it solvable, but it is difficult to understand why so few steps have been taken to solve the combined sewer overflows in Philadelphia. The lack of regulation is a major factor, which this upgraded designation would start to address. Water quality is being improved in similar and bigger cities with equally old sewer systems: Paris is cleaning up the Seine for the 2024 Olympics, Boston is driving the Charles River Swimming Initiative, Manhattan has a beach on the Hudson River, with another set to open in Brooklyn by 2028, and The Swimmable Potomac Campaign is making progress as well. For each of these projects, reliable data are being collected, communities are being asked about their interests and informed about the project, and cities are committing to reducing sewer overflows to 95% contained. While expensive, this is a completely possible goal. In 2017, our neighbors at Camden Municipal Utilities Authority accomplished a 78% reduction through a variety of actions, winning an award for their work. Camden has a concrete plan to reach over 85% of overflow capture in the coming decade. EPA’s combined sewer overflow policy was issued in 1994, and Philadelphia has taken little action to reduce them. 

In addition, an important component is that information on the overflows is being hidden from the public by only showing modeled data in CSOCast, making it impossible to know the actual amounts and risks to wildlife and recreators. Upgrading the designation is essential for driving the collection of pertinent data and release of data that are already being collected. There are gauges on overflows, but these actual data are not shared. Rather, we are only given an annual amount in each year’s report. We know that a handful of CSOs discharge the majority of combined sewage and runoff. Camden has shown that targeting the major overflows is very effective. We also only have access to modeled information about the effectiveness of Green Cities, Clean Water. Solely relying on Green Infrastructure does not seem to be doing the trick, as we see year after year in PWD’s annual reports of discharges. While the claim is that the Green Cities program is on track and working, no empirical evidence of reduced stormwater or CSOs has been shown. These reports have also been based on models rather than empirical data, meaning that models are not validated with real world conditions. By not having access to the data and information about the extent of the problem, the public may not realize what actions to push for to reduce CSOs and improve water quality. Because they lack access to information, they may also not realize how close we are to having water healthy enough to swim in. This misperception of water quality has prompted a response by many that they are surprised about the reasons for poor water quality. If taken care of, every person I speak with expresses interest in swimming and boating in clean waters in the future.

Right now our communities want to fish and boat. Certain people at the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) say that there is little interest in boating in our regional rivers, or that the Delaware being a shipping channel makes it too dangerous, but Riverways, the US Environmental Protection Agency, City Council, and local stakeholders disagree. Of course, tidal rivers are complicated places, and you have to know something about boating safety. You have to know when the tides are coming in and where the fast currents are. You have to know where you’re paddling to stay away from large ships. But right now, people are boating in the calm waters of the Schuylkill, the Back Channel of the Delaware near Camden, on FDR Lake, and other tucked away spots with slow flows and lovely, on-water scenery. 

During the summer, the piers on the Delaware and Schuylkill are full of fisherfolk, and we see more and more boaters in jet skis, kayaks and canoes getting in the water through Riverways members’ and other organizations’ programs as well as on their own. Getting more people connected to rivers is a major objective of several groups in Philadelphia, Camden, and the region: Riverways is a coalition of urban boating and environmental education groups: Bartram’s Garden, Glen Foerd, Urban Promise, the Center for Aquatic Sciences, Discovery Pathways and LandHealth Institute. Riverways members monitor the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers during boating season and found that extended dry periods in 2022 led to conditions safe for primary recreation. In 2023, the rivers were often unsafe due to sewage overflows during several rainstorms. Groups like Riverways, SeaPhilly, and Upstream Alliance show over 35,000 people per year how magical it feels to be out on the river admiring the birds, trees, natural spots, and the skyline. But we do not want to be putting people’s health at risk. Riverfront North Partnership opened a new dock for powerboats and kayaks if you have your own to launch, and they’re adding to the Baxter Trail near them. Along other creeks, Tookany-Tacony/ Frankford Watershed Partnership, Clean Air Council, Wissahickon Trails, Circuit Trails, and many other organizations are building and maintaining trails to get people outdoors along our waterways. 

While community organizations and environmental organizations are advocating for officially designating the Delaware River swimmable in the area, some agencies say it’s not something people want—So why address it with more locations, safety precautions, and better water quality? But who wouldn’t want to get on a boat or go fishing on a hot summer’s day? The temperature is much cooler on the water. Groups like Oshun Swim School are helping communities gain skills to add to our connections to water. Spending time in nature has been documented to have major physical and mental health benefits. So, instead of having to prove that the public is interested in being able to safely boat and swim without paddling through sewage, many of us ask: who wouldn’t want to swim, boat or go fishing? Shouldn’t we have the right to good water quality and safe river access points in our communities, so we can experience our natural heritage, our rivers?

The 2019 triennial review references 30-year-old statements about CSOs that were based on conditions before the Long-term control plan. PWD, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and other agencies have made very little effort to collect the data they cite as lacking for this decision, but we could have access to information on the amount of effluent discharged throughout the year and for each CSO.

It’s an environmental justice issue given the communities being excluded from primary recreation.  This situation cannot be called anything but negligence. And while it may not have the same public health risks as drinking water system negligence in Flint, MI and Jackson, MS, it stems from the same issue—public officials knowing about a problem, failing to disclose the extent of it and the effects, and continuing to do harm in the long-term, in this case for wildlife and for people who get minor gastrointestinal issues after boating. There is more funding now available than there has been in a long time, and there is still no comprehensive plan by PWD or the PA DEP, which is unacceptable. We ask you to designate the 27-mile stretch of the river for primary designation and to follow up on getting a plan, funding, and actions in place to move it toward attaining that status. This status would protect the critically endangered Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon, other sensitive fish species and aquatic fauna and flora, in addition to the people enjoying the river.