When Steve Meserve’s great-grandfather, Bill Lewis, started the Lewis Fishery in 1888, it was one of dozens of commercial outfits scattered up and down the Delaware River that seined for American shad during the spring spawn. At the time, the Delaware’s shad fishery hauled 3 to 4 million of the hard-fighting fish from the river and its tributaries every year. But, soon enough, Lewis discovered that he had gotten into the business just as the river — along with the species it supported — was entering a period of catastrophic decline.
For two centuries, factories and cities on both sides of the Delaware had been indiscriminately dumping trash, raw sewage, and industrial chemicals into the waterway. “My grandfather, Fred, would joke that we would catch a car a year with all the parts that turned up in the nets,” said Meserve, who took over the family fishery in 1996. “And in my youth, in the 60s, there were more jokes about getting sick by swimming in the river and drinking the water.”
The Lewis Fishery was located in Lambertville, New Jersey, not far upriver from what came to be known as the “dead zone,” a 27-mile urban stretch of the Delaware, between Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, where point source pollution was so acute that the water’s dissolved oxygen (DO) levels were often zero. Robust DO content was crucial to the survival of the shad, as well as other aquatic species like sturgeon, striped bass, and oysters. The dead zone effectively rendered their ability to move upriver impossible — and made any direct human contact with the river dangerous.
The Clean Water Act provided the government with the legal framework to regulate pollution and the funding to clean it up.
But, just as Meserve was learning how to set and haul shad nets as a boy in the 1960s, a historic intervention was in the making. Sparked by the burgeoning environmental movement, the federal government began passing a series of laws that would help bring the Delaware back from the brink, as well as the estimated two-thirds of U.S. rivers, lakes, and coastal waters that had also become so toxic they were unsafe for fishing and swimming. Chief among this string of key environmental legislation was the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972, which was enacted 50 years ago this month. The act provided the federal government, for the first time, with the legal framework to regulate pollution and the funding to help states build wastewater infrastructure that would lead to the rapid improvement of water quality in the Delaware and in the scores of other water bodies that had become the waste receptacles of the Industrial Revolution.
“At the time, as a country, we were beyond just looking to try and put food in our mouths and roofs over our heads, and looking for better things in life, which environmental quality is one of them,” said G. Tracy Mehan, a former associate deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It all combined with active political advocacy that yielded the raft of environmental laws that are still pretty much guiding our regulatory policies today.”
The Delaware River runs 330 miles. From two separate headwaters in New York, it follows the worn Devonian contours of the Catskill Mountains, gathering volume and speed before combining to shape a course that forms the quivering edge of Pennsylvania’s northeast border. When William Penn first sailed up the river, in 1682, its fresh water ran clear as gin all the way to the briny Delaware Bay. For eons prior, and through thousands of years of Native American settlement, the watershed had functioned without impairment, naturally building and nourishing the rich biodiversity that Penn and future European settlers would need to survive.
In fact, it was the vitality of the watershed that struck Penn most in his search for the location of a “great Towne” in “ye most convenient place upon the River for health and Navigation.” He wrote with awe about the river’s extraordinary ecology: oysters six inches long and larger, their reefs blanketing the riverbed; Atlantic sturgeon, some as big as 14 feet and as heavy as 800 pounds, breaching everywhere in explosive, playful leaps. Shad swimming in schools as thick as wool.
Little more than 50 years after Penn’s arrival, Philadelphia’s banks were studded with tanneries and slaughterhouses whose byproducts left the Delaware opaque and foul. In 1739, 33-year-old Benjamin Franklin and his neighbors petitioned Pennsylvania’s general assembly to remove the polluters from the riverbank. In the sweltering summer of 1776, as delegates from the colonies gathered to draft the Declaration of Independence, many of the city’s streets were piled with rotting garbage and manure that ended up in the river.
By the late 19th century, Philadelphia’s population was around 1 million; nearby cities, like Camden, New Jersey, were also rapidly growing. While drinking water standards had improved by then, the Delaware, along with the country’s other great rivers, had become untouchable voids — open, putrid secrets of the American experiment. Shad fisherman Bill Lewis kept meticulous catch logs, a tradition that his descendants maintained. “Our records show how bad the decline in fish numbers was,” Steve Meserve said. “We have many years with single or very low double digits — we have two years where we didn’t catch any shad at all.”
In the 1970s, Gerald Kauffman was a high school kid living in Pennsauken, New Jersey, a blue-collar community across the Delaware from Philadelphia, where tree-lined streets gave way to a riverbank lined with petrochemical plants and warehouses. “Growing up on the river, it just had a stench,” Kauffman, who today is the director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, said. “We would pull fish out of the river that were coated with oil.”
Sailors at the Philadelphia Navy Yard were unable to sleep in their berths because of rancid fumes belching from the water.
In a paper recounting the history of water quality in the river, Kauffman writes that the domestic effort in the World War II era metastasized the Delaware’s pollution woes. Chemical companies like DuPont were manufacturing everything from dynamite to novel compounds like plastics polymers, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds. The byproducts often made their way into combined sewage systems along with raw sewage or were released directly into the river and its tributaries.
In some places around Philadelphia, Kauffman notes, sludge sat 12 feet thick on the river bottom. Sailors at the Philadelphia Navy Yard were unable to sleep in their berths because of the rancid fumes belching from the water. The fresh coat of paint on a hospital ship “turned into the colors of a rainbow as it sailed out into the toxic Delaware River.” The circumstances became so dire that, in 1941, President Roosevelt ordered an investigation of the impacts of the pollution on the military effort. In 1944, James Allen, a regional water official, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that, if something wasn’t done immediately to quell the pollution dumped from Philadelphia and Camden, “after this war is over there is a danger that they may become ‘ghost’ ports.”
Allen was hardly alone in his sense of urgency. Across the U.S., policymakers and ordinary citizens alike were waking up to the dire state of America’s waterways and shorelines. In 1948, Congress attempted to address the problem by passing the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. But the bill afforded the government too little regulatory power or funding to force states and industry to quell point source discharges from sewage plants and factories, the primary cause of river pollution by an order of magnitude.
With the dawn of the 1960s, however, the disparate attempts to enact water pollution legislation started to coalesce with the larger social undercurrents and the fledging environmental movement, which were then beginning to flood American society.
In 1969, a Union Oil drilling operation off Santa Barbara, California, caused a blowout that released nearly 100,000 barrels of crude into the Pacific — the largest oil spill in the U.S. up to that point. That August, in the inaugural installment of Time’s “Environment” section, the magazine published photos of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in flames. The river, which ran through Cleveland and drained into Lake Erie, had in fact been combusting for decades. “Some river!” the accompanying article read. “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” Of the Potomac, the piece went, it “reaches the nation’s capital as a pleasant stream, and leaves it stinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes that are flushed into it daily.” In Nebraska, “Omaha’s meat packers fill the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges.” In California, the Los Angeles River, once teeming with steelhead trout, had been paved over by the Army Corps of Engineers in the name of flood control and was now little more than a sluice for wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff.
One of the people who traveled to Santa Barbara to survey the aftermath of the Union Oil blowout was Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a fervent environmentalist who saw in the 1960s’ anti-war teach-ins an effective method for raising Americans’ awareness of the growing threats of pollution to their lives and future. That December, Nelson hired 25-year-old Denis Hayes to be his national coordinator for an “Environmental Teach-In.” Under Hayes’ watch, the event was renamed Earth Day. “What was missing [in the early 1960s] was anything that wove all these issues into a single fabric called ‘environmentalism,’” said Hayes. “That may have been Earth Day’s principal accomplishment: groups found themselves allied in common cause with others with whom they had not previously recognized as sharing a common cause.”
When Nixon attempted to veto the Clean Water Act, Congress overrode his veto by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
Along with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the first photograph of Earth taken during the moon landing, the Santa Barbara oil spill, and Time’s images of the flaming Cuyahoga, the first Earth Day ignited the environmental movement and provided the kind of urgency that Washington could not ignore. A cascade of environmental legislation deluged President Richard Nixon’s desk. In 1970, he signed into law the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. And while he attempted to veto the Clean Water Act two years later, calling its $24.6 billion price tag “extreme and needless overspending,” Congress overrode the veto by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
The Clean Water Act immediately established a permitting program that regulated industrial point source pollution discharges into waters considered navigable. The EPA authorized most state, tribal, and territorial governments to perform permitting and enforcement on their own. Perhaps most important, in terms of achieving rapid water quality improvements, the act provided grants to states and municipalities for the upgrade of existing sewage treatment plants or the construction of new ones.
Additionally, each state and territory was required to establish EPA-approved water quality standards in which waters were codified and regulated under one of four “designated uses”: protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife; recreation, including “primary contact” activities like swimming, kayaking, and rafting; drinking water supply; or agricultural, industrial, navigational, and other purposes. States and territories were charged with setting and maintaining cleanup schedules and classifications, but the EPA held enforcement authority if they did not.
“The Clean Water Act was able to go in and say [to states], ‘No, we can’t do this anymore,” said Peter Raabe, the Southeast regional director for American Rivers, an advocacy group. “So, we saw this sort of turnaround pretty quickly, particularly in urban areas where governments were able to access that money relatively efficiently and effectively.”
In Ohio, the Cuyahoga underwent a dramatic revival. Today, in the sections of river that once burned, some 60 species of fish swim. Much of the river is, for significant parts of the year, safe for “primary contact” activities. So, too, is the Potomac. In 2020, after decades of cleanup efforts, northern Wisconsin’s Menominee River, whose bed was once layered thick with arsenic, coal tar, paint sludge, and other industrial chemicals, was removed from a list of areas within the Great Lakes region deemed pollution hot spots. Though still a work in progress, sections of the Los Angeles River are being restored, in some cases in partnership with the Army Corps. Even tiny bodies of water have been saved — with grant funding from the Clean Water Act, Atlanta’s Chandler Park Brook, which had been rerouted into underground pipes and concrete channeling, was “daylighted” and restored to its natural flow.
“You can see it time and time again across watersheds,” Raabe said. “Communities saying, ‘Hey, here’s this asset that we hadn’t originally realized that brings tranquility, happiness, and value to our community. We should turn and face this.’”
A New Jersey tributary of the Delaware that was once a “dead zone” is now host to national rowing regattas.
Andy Kricun saw firsthand how fast the act began to turn things around on the Delaware River. In 1985, he was hired fresh out of college by the Camden County Municipal Utility Authority. As part of a team of engineers, Kricun was tasked with planning a new piping system that would redirect the county’s waste to a single plant, rather than the 52 that were currently in use. “I had a pretty good bird’s-eye view of what it looked like, at least in Camden County, pre-Clean Water Act,” said Kricun, who later became the utility’s executive director. “And it was really bad.”
The City of Camden’s Cooper River, which feeds into the Delaware, would become an early proof of concept for Kricun and his colleagues’ efforts. When Kricun took the job, 40 percent of the Cooper’s flow was raw sewage. By 1990, the county had disconnected most of the 51 plants slated for closure. “Within one year of those treatment plants being eliminated, the tributary’s bacteria levels went down by 95 to 99 percent,” he said. “Now, this river that was once a dead zone is host to national rowing regattas.”
For as pervasive and toxic as it was, the truth is that point source pollution was and remains today the “low hanging fruit,” as both Kauffman and Raabe called it. “Setting aside its aspirational language, at the end of the day, the enforceable provisions of the Clean Water Act are a point source program,” said Mehan, the former EPA official. “In that, it was very successful.” But Mehan, along with everyone interviewed for this article, agreed that the toughest challenges lie ahead — especially for the 27-mile segment around Philadelphia and Camden — the infamous, pre-Clean Water Act dead zone — which remains unsuitable for primary contact recreation and is still held to the lower water quality standard designated for industrial and navigational uses.
There, combined sewer overflows, which are common during heavy rainfall events and are becoming more frequent due to climate change, continue to be a problem. “Sewage eeks out of these systems and gets into the river, even during dry weather,” he said. “But it should not, and there needs to be federal compliance by the cities, and enforcement, if necessary, by the EPA.”
While Kricun acknowledges that it would be prohibitively expensive to upgrade wastewater utilities in order for the urban segment to be swimmable 365 days a year, he says there are cheaper, outside-the-box measures that would allow it to be safe frequently enough for it to be redesignated for primary contact, including swimming. These measures are attainable through existing Clean Water Act funding opportunities, he said, and several are already in action.
In Camden, netting was installed over 30 outflows to capture solids; after wet weather events, crews clean out the nets. The county also daylighted a once-filled-in stream, leading to the diversion of some 50 million gallons of runoff that would have ended up in the Delaware. Across the river, in an effort to meet Clean Water Act standards, Philadelphia created the Green City, Clean Waters program, which utilizes green infrastructure like rain gardens and pervious surfaces to capture stormwater to be used for irrigating plants and trees. It’s a modest but promising effort: each year, the new infrastructure prevents about three billion gallons of polluted water from entering Philadelphia’s combined sewer system.
The 197 miles of the Delaware north of Trenton is one of the longest stretches of river in the U.S. designated for “primary contact.”
For Marcus Sibley, who chairs New Jersey NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee and who lives not far from the banks of the Delaware, perhaps the greatest challenge for the Clean Water Act is addressing the layers of inequity that have been exposed as the years of cleanup efforts continue along America’s once-toxic rivers.
The 197 miles of the Delaware between Trenton, New Jersey, north to Hancock, New York is one of the longest stretches of river in the U.S. designated for primary contact and is popular with canoeists, kayakers, and boaters. The high water quality standard has made it so Steve Meserve’s nets are often full of shad again, that instead of car parts, his only bycatch is the occasional tree branch.
Sibley believes the same standard should be applied to the river’s urban stretches. “The Clean Water Act was a tremendous step for our country,” he said. “Now, 50 years later, we understand that some of the things we thought weren’t a problem before are problems now. There are people living in communities that are adversely impacted by industries’ thinking that their water is okay to be tainted. It’s not okay. Water is a basic right — it should be something everyone automatically has access to.”