NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Renewal Ahead for Delaware River, Newest Site of Urban Waters Federal Partnership Program

George Washington crosses the Delaware River, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. (Public Domain, Emanuel Leutze)

George Washington crosses the Delaware River, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. (Public Domain, Emanuel Leutze)

You may know the Delaware River only as the partially frozen river George Washington and his troops crossed to victory late at night during the American Revolution, surprising enemy forces based in New Jersey. But many other people—approximately 15 million—know it as their source of water for drinking supplies, industrial uses, irrigation, commerce, and recreation.

The Delaware is one of our nation’s most important rivers. As the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, it extends from upstate New York to Delaware Bay, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. And historically, transportation on the Delaware River was critical to the early development of Philadelphia, Penn.; Wilmington, Del.; and Trenton and Camden, N.J.

However, population and industrial growth took their toll on urban areas along the Delaware. Until the mid-20th century, human and industrial waste received inadequate treatment before flowing into the river, contributing to extensive water pollution problems. This pollution had the effect of draining the river’s waters of the oxygen needed for fish and other aquatic life to survive. Following the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, conditions have improved, but water quality remains a problem along this river, especially in urban areas.

Over the years, the land around the river has increasingly changed from a natural to an urban setting, losing many of the benefits of nature that the river can offer and at times replacing them with pollutants and failing sewers. Urban infrastructure and abandoned and polluted sites began to claim the riverbanks, severely restricting access to the river.

A Partnership to Reclaim the River

Yet, the outlook for this river appears hopeful. The Delaware River and the land around it, which includes the greater Philadelphia area, is one of 11 places across the U.S. recently welcomed into the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. In order to restore degraded waterfronts and to revitalize economically depressed areas along the river, this partnership will join forces with state, regional, and local organizations to address economic and environmental problems along the river through Philadelphia. NOAA is one of the federal partners coordinating this effort and Office of Response and Restoration staff in the area will be working to ensure the program’s success.

A train crossing over the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Penn., to Camden, N.J.  (Creative Commons, Bob Snyder, Rights reserved)

A train crossing over the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Penn., to Camden, N.J. (Creative Commons, Bob Snyder, Rights reserved)

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership furthers the work of other national efforts, such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. This partnership focuses on a broad range of projects that will protect community investments while also improving erosion and flood control, water quality, economic and environmental health, and access to waterways.

One of the specific ways the partnership and NOAA will benefit the region is by supporting the Camden County Municipal Authority’s development of Phoenix Park, a community park along the Delaware. This project will involve waterfront and shoreline restoration and will be the centerpiece of a larger project to restore the Camden waterfront. Meanwhile, in Wilmington, the partnership will be able to offer additional support for Fox Point State Park, a relatively new public area created on a former Brownfield property.

On another front, NOAA, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service will lead an Urban Waters Federal Partnership effort to address remaining water quality issues in the river. These problems stem from a history of habitat loss from past dredging and filling on the shoreline, underutilized and contaminated waterfront property, failing infrastructure (including sewers), and threats from climate change. A compelling reason for dealing with these issues is that several species of fish that were caught commercially and recreationally in the urban part of the Delaware River are threatened, such as Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, shad and river herring, and eel. Furthermore, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership projects will focus on reconnecting underserved communities to their waterfronts.

A History of Restoration

These efforts will complement NOAA’s longstanding efforts to clean up and restore the Delaware River from the impacts of oil spills and hazardous waste sites. You can view a map (click to zoom to Delaware) depicting the more than a dozen sites that NOAA is actively working on along the Delaware River and its tributaries. The NOAA Restoration Atlas has additional information about restoration projects in the region that NOAA has helped to support.

Once a bustling ferry terminal on the Delaware River during the industrial revolution, Lardner's Point had fallen into disrepair over the years. Then, in 2004, a tanker released more than 265,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware, exposing this area and hundreds of other miles of shoreline to spilled crude oil. Today, Lardner’s Point features a clean and welcoming waterfront public park, with newly restored shorelines. (NOAA)

Once a bustling ferry terminal on the Delaware River during the industrial revolution, Lardner’s Point had fallen into disrepair over the years. Then, in 2004, a tanker released more than 265,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware, exposing this area and hundreds of other miles of shoreline to spilled crude oil. Today, Lardner’s Point features a clean and welcoming waterfront public park, with newly restored shorelines. (NOAA)

One notable example, among many, is Lardner’s Point, a newly established waterfront park in Philadelphia, which NOAA, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, and the Delaware River City Corporation have helped transform from a disused, concrete blight to a vibrant, natural gem. The restored shoreline there is the foundation for continuing revitalization along the central and northern Philadelphia waterfront, as well as community renewal efforts in Chester, Penn., around the Commodore Barry Bridge.

Washington Crossing State Park, north of Philadelphia. (Creative Commons, Nancy Dowd, Rights reserved)

Washington Crossing State Park, north of Philadelphia. (Creative Commons, Nancy Dowd, Rights reserved)

Diverse activities and communities along the Delaware River make clear its importance and value to the people who live near it. Visible from Philadelphia’s major bridges to New Jersey, the Port of Philadelphia is one of the largest freshwater ports in the world, and it shares the urban riverfront with parks and recreational areas.

To the north, along the banks of historic towns such as New Hope, Penn., and Lambertville and Stockton, N.J., favorite river activities include fishing, rafting, tubing, and canoeing. Even further north, the Delaware is classified as a National Wild and Scenic River. While to the south, the Delaware Bayshore is home to swimming, boating, and commercial fishing.

But for too long, the urban populations along the Delaware River have had limited opportunities to enjoy the river right where they live and work. Fortunately, that is changing. NOAA and the Urban Waters Federal Partnership are building on that momentum, aiming to return to the area and its people the renewed benefits of a healthy, accessible river—one that they can be proud to claim again as their own.


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Giving Communities the Dollars to Restore America’s Rivers

This is a post by NOAA intern Sarah Idczak.

While recently leading an activity for middle school students, I showed two pictures of streams. In one, a narrow culvert protruded from under a road, the lower edge a foot or so above the stream that it fed. The other picture showed a wide, shady creek strewn with logs running under a bridge.

“If you were a salmon,” I asked them, “which of these streams would you rather swim up?”

Nearly all hands went up for the stream with the bridge.

As an intern with NOAA’s Restoration Center and Office of General Counsel for Natural Resources, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to help review community grant proposals for fish habitat restoration projects. Having helped write a grant proposal to conduct a wind resource study at my university, I was interested in seeing the other side of a grant program, which meant participating in the review and discussion that determines which projects receive funding.

Volunteers plant saltmarsh vegetation.

In 2000, volunteers planted saltmarsh vegetation at Ft. McHenry in Maryland. (NOAA Restoration Center)

Because I have been working at NOAA’s Seattle office, I focused on the grant proposals for Washington state. There were nine proposals from Washington alone this year, and the grant is open nationally, which means only a few excellent projects can be granted funding in each region in a given year.  The Restoration Center’s experienced grant reviewers and I first read through the proposals, paying close attention to budget and design details, as well as the likely impact of the projects. After individually scoring each proposal, the reviewers compared notes and discussed each proposal’s strengths and weaknesses, determining which projects would go on to the next round of deliberations for possible funding.

The Restoration Center, partnering with the American Sportfishing Association’s Fish America Foundation, awards grants to projects that will restore habitat for sport fish species such as salmon and trout. These projects can include removing barriers that prevent fish from migrating upstream to spawn, such as dams and culverts; placing large woody debris in streams to provide fish with places to rest and hide; or planting native vegetation near streams to provide shade.

For example, the Mattole Restoration Council, a community organization in Petrolia, Calif., was awarded a $57,800 Fish America Foundation grant a few years ago to remove a culvert along a tributary of the Mattole River and replace it with a bridge. This project restored one mile of prime steelhead and salmon habitat.

 The Applied Environmental Sciences Site prior to restoration.

The Applied Environmental Sciences Site prior to restoration. Fill material and common reed (Phragmites australis) were removed in 2003 during the shoreline and saltmarsh restoration of Bar Beach Lagoon in New York. (EEA/Laura Schwanof)

Since the partnership began 14 years ago, the Fish America Foundation and NOAA have awarded $6.9 million in grants, resulting in an estimated $23 million worth of restored fish habitat along U.S. coasts, including the Great Lakes. Volunteers play an integral role in these projects, contributing 11,000 hours of labor to the projects funded in 2010 alone.

These funding opportunities are part of the Restoration Center’s Community-Based Restoration Program, which focuses on facilitating and funding hands-on community involvement in habitat restoration. This project is also part of a broader effort throughout many of NOAA’s offices to involve the public in restoring and protecting the natural resources in their communities.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, which works closely with the Restoration Center to evaluate and restore environmental damages after oil and chemical releases, also reaches out to conservation groups and community members to help rehabilitate degraded habitat. In these cases, the people responsible for the spill are required to fund the restoration projects.

Saltmarsh restoration at the Applied Environmental Sciences site.

The background shows 2003 saltmarsh restoration at the Applied Environmental Sciences site in New York. In the foreground you can see further restoration which North Hempstead, N.Y., continued in 2007. (NOAA/Lisa Rosman)

A legal settlement over the Applied Environmental Sciences Superfund site on Long Island, N.Y., for instance, included funding for a community restoration project that restored an acre of saltmarsh and shoreline near the site. A more recent project reclaimed a stretch of Philadelphia’s waterfront after a 2004 oil spill on the Delaware River.

Through participation in these community restoration projects, people learn the importance of high-quality habitat, gain the knowledge and experience to pick out other potential projects in their communities, and help make restoration more effective and longer lasting. To learn more about restoration projects in your community, take a look at NOAA’s Restoration Atlas.

Sarah IdczakSarah Idczak recently completed a summer internship working jointly with NOAA’s Office of General Counsel Natural Resources Section and NOAA’s Restoration Center. She is a senior at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, studying environmental policy.


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Oil Spills and the Holidays, Act II: Black Friday Takes a New Meaning

In the last post, Doug Helton talked about the M/V Kuroshima spill in Alaska. The next Thanksgiving story comes to us from Ed Levine, the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for Connecticut to Delaware.

After a wonderful family Thanksgiving seven years ago, what we in the response business refer to as the “Usual Notification”—a call in the middle of the night during a long holiday weekend—came true. At 9:30 p.m. on November 26, 2004, the (Black) Friday after Thanksgiving, the tanker Athos I was damaged while docking at the CITGO refinery on the Delaware River and began spilling its cargo of Venezuelan crude oil. By 2:00 a.m., I was requested to go on-scene and support the Coast Guard’s response in Philadelphia.

My sons and wife were used to this scrambling to pack and run out the door. Little did we know how complicated this response would be and how long it would last!

When I arrived, prior to first light, many details were still unknown or just unfolding. We knew the ship was leaking oil, it was leaning to one side, but it was secure at anchor. At that time we didn’t know how much oil was leaking, where it was going, how far it would spread, the cause of the damage, the environmental and economic impacts it would have, or the duration of the clean up.

Athos I

Tanker Athos I anchored in the Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

At daylight, the first helicopter surveys found some oil along the Pennsylvania shoreline, but the first reports were not too alarming. But I knew it was important to get some calibrated eyes on the spill, someone with experience spotting oil from the air. It’s not as easy as it sounds to conduct an aerial survey.

After a few hours in the command post, I had a chance to fly.

During my overflight (aerial survey), it was clear that the ship was still leaking. I observed oil many miles up river and in larger concentrations than previously reported. Upon returning to the command post, I told the Captain of the Port, “we need a bigger boat!” This was a major oil spill, and we were going to be here a long time cleaning it up.

Little did I know how right I was.

Oiled Diver

Commercial diver covered in oil after a bottom survey. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

The ship’s crew was eventually able to transfer cargo around the tanks to stop the outflow of oil, but over 240,000 gallons of heavy crude oil were released from the ship. The cleanup took a full year until all the shorelines were signed off as clean. A nuclear power plant even shut down for over a week. Vessel traffic into the port stopped for eight days until the mysterious object that the vessel struck could be located. Hundreds of birds were oiled. Hundreds of miles of shoreline in three states had to be inspected and the oiled areas cleaned up.

Winter operations became brutal, the river eventually froze over and operations ceased for a couple months. In the early weeks of the response, a boat overturned with five people on board. Luckily for them a NOAA ship was nearby and able to rescue all of them.

Shoreline clean up

Shoreline clean up, Tinicum Island, Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

The spilled oil was nearly neutrally buoyant in the brackish waters of the Delaware Estuary, meaning the oil was just as likely to sink as it was to float, complicating cleanup operations. Eventually, the shorelines were cleaned, and damages to natural resources were assessed and restored [leaves this blog].

Because of this accident, the response community has become more prepared and new legislation was passed (President Signs Oil Spill Legislation) [leaves this blog]. It was historic at the time, and I was glad I had given a little piece to the success of the response. It’s a thought that helps me be prepared for the next “Usual Notification” I will receive, whenever it comes.

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