Would you swim in the Delaware River? Floatopia invites you to try it out, in the name of clean water

Federal infrastructure funds could help Philly stop pollution from flooding city waterways, advocates say.

Floatopia in 2019

Floatopia in 2019

Miguel Martinez for WHYY
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What’s that I see crossing the Delaware?

It’s a giant pink flamingo! It’s an oversized sea turtle! No, it’s a floating brigade of clean water crusaders.

Environmental nonprofit Upstream Alliance kicks off its third “Floatopia” event Saturday afternoon, with participants launching from Camden’s Pyne Point Park across from Philadelphia.

Inspired by a grassroots org’s event in Portland called “The Big Float,” the idea behind Floatopia is to raise awareness about how far the Delaware has come since the days of being able to smell its odor 5,000 feet in the air — while also sending a message to municipal and state leaders to prioritize upgrading antiquated sewage systems that dump waste into the river during storms.

People will float in kayaks, on inner tubes, or with paddleboards all afternoon to show officials “the need and opportunity for on-water recreation” along the stretch of the Delaware adjacent to Philadelphia and Camden, said Don Baugh, one of the event organizers.

It’s what he describes as a “fun, maybe even a silly event, but with a very serious message.” Said Baugh: “We’re really kind of a beach party with a purpose.”

Councilmember Mark Squilla (who’s known to demonstrate his affinity for swimming) plans to be in attendance at Saturday’s event. He introduced a resolution in City Council to explore ways the city can speed up the pursuit of swimmable rivers.

Passed in late June, it authorized public hearings on what the Philadelphia Water Department “is or could be doing” with federal water quality infrastructure dollars to address sewage overflows into the Delaware and the Schuylkill. It requests a written report outlining the department’s plans for projects that could better the rivers for recreational use and how they plan to get federal or state money to implement those plans.

The resolution is waiting for a hearing date sometime in October, Squilla told Billy Penn.

A cleaner waterway, but pollution seeps out when it rains

Baugh is the president and founder of Upstream Alliance, a Maryland-based group that aims to provide “powerful, on-the-water experiences for conservation leaders who can improve public access, clean water and coastal resilience.” The organization’s work focuses on the Delaware, Chesapeake, and Hudson Rivers.

As of right now, almost all of the Delaware River is considered fit for “primary contact” recreation, meaning full water immersion that happens during activities like swimming. That is, except for the 27-mile stretch that flows past Philly, Camden, and Chester.

Whether to update that designation, and prioritize infrastructure improvements to meet more stringent water quality standards, has been a matter of recent debate.

As of now, “secondary contact,” or activities like boating where immersion or ingestion of water is unlikely, is considered okay in Philly. But taking a dip isn’t really recommended — in large part because of Philadelphia’s and Camden’s old sewage and stormwater systems that get overwhelmed during heavy rain events, causing bacteria-laden sewage to flow into the river.

The Delaware is actually much cleaner now than it has been in many years — just fine to use for recreation on most days, Baugh contends. That’s thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, he said, which turns 50 this year.

“The Delaware, I think people a lot of times forget, is really a national poster child of a river that’s been restored and cleaned up,” Baugh said. “However, the job has not been done, because we can’t swim and recreate the river safely 365 days a year, like the Clean Water Act called for.”

The particularly concerning times, Baugh said, are when it rains a lot. (The Philadelphia Water Department cautions against swimming in the river in dry weather, too, since things like debris, deep water, and strong currents pose safety risks. Swimming in any of Philly’s rivers or creeks is prohibited throughout the city.)

Philadelphia Water is currently 11 years into its “Green City, Clean Waters” program, a 25-year effort to upgrade the city’s wastewater and water treatment systems. The program has been implementing “green stormwater infrastructure,” which involves installing things like rain gardens and green roofs throughout the city to divert water away from the sewage system. But the department warns there’s still the potential for billions of gallons of overflows impacting local waterways.

To pave the way for a year-round clean river, Baugh said city officials should seek federal funding to improve their sewage and stormwater systems. And given the amount of money Congress is making available to cities through legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, he said, this year is the perfect time to make these asks.

If you want to participate

The event’s happening on the New Jersey side of the river (sorry), at Camden’s Pyne Point Park. It’ll take place in a back channel area, where river currents are weaker and floaters aren’t likely to run into commercial traffic, Baugh said.

Floatopia is a BYOF event: bring your own float. That could be an inner tube, paddleboard, canoe, kayak, or inflatable animal.

The actual Floatopia flotilla is capped at 75 participants, Baugh said, so you should RSVP to ericabaugh@gmail.com if you want to join. Registration is at 1 p.m., and the float starts at 2 p.m.

There’s also an afterparty and listening session at the park with food and a DJ that’s open to all, Baugh said, and the org expects 150+ people to show up. That kicks off at 5 p.m.

The event has a kind of extended rain date. If there’s more than a half-inch of rainfall in the 48 hours before the event, it’ll be moved to Sept. 10.

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