City Cast

Why Philadelphia’s Waterways Are So Dirty

Brittany Valentine
Brittany Valentine
Posted on September 27
Rowers on the Schuylkill River. (Bob Krist/Getty Images)

Rowers on the Schuylkill River. (Bob Krist/Getty Images)

Philadelphia has gorgeous bodies of water, but cleanliness is not their most prominent feature.

One major culprit is how Philly’s sewer system was designed. Stormwater and sewage travel through the same pipes on their way to local wastewater treatment plants. During heavy rains, those plants are unable to handle the flow, and dump untreated sewage into local waterways.

The Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, as well as Cobbs, Frankford, Tacony, and Pennypack Creeks, absorb about 15 billion gallons of untreated sewage and rainwater annually, according to a PennEnvironment report released in July. S/O to Green Philly and The Philadelphia Inquirer for covering this story.

This poses major health risks for Philadelphians who partake in recreational water activities such as boating, fishing, and rowing. Pathogens within the sewage and runoff can cause nausea, rashes, ear infections, and diarrhea.

Due to the frequent sewage overflows, Philly residents miss out on recreation on most local waterways for about 128 days or more every year.

PennEnvironment advocate Stephanie Wein told Green Philly that the city has made great strides in addressing this issue, but it “still puts public health at risk on far too many days of the year.”

A view of the Ben Franklin Bridge over the Delaware River. (David Zanzinger/Getty Images)

A view of the Ben Franklin Bridge over the Delaware River. (David Zanzinger/Getty Images)

Where Do We Go From Here?

The report highlighted multiple recommendations to improve public safety on our waterways:

  • Develop five new access points for recreational activities.
  • Use netting to capture untreated wastewater.
  • Improve infrastructure to capture stormwater.
  • End dry-weather sewage discharges.

This is a long-term project. So for now, consult this map to see where the worst pollution is and how close it is to water recreation areas. And, here’s a real time map of overflows so you can see when it's safe to go on the water.

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