This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight, published on March 10, 2020. It is being republished under a special content-sharing agreement. NJ Spotlight is a nonprofit editorial website that partners with NJTV News to deliver news and analysis about politics and public policy in New Jersey. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

The Delaware River is a lot cleaner than when it was an “open sewer” half a century ago but still faces environmental challenges, notably including the looming effects of climate change, experts said at the latest NJ Spotlight roundtable.

The river and the tributaries in its watershed now have much higher levels of dissolved oxygen, an important indicator of ecological health, than they did in the 1960s, thanks to a cleanup of wastewater plant output required by the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, panelists noted at the event attended by about 80 people at the Coopers Riverview venue at Trenton last Thursday.

The improvements have allowed migratory fish to swim upstream beyond what was previously a “dead zone” at Philadelphia; have allowed other wildlife like bald eagles to thrive, and have improved conditions for swimmers, boaters and fishermen, the five panelists said.

But they warned that the river is now at risk from climate-related threats including floods, droughts, and encroaching saltwater as rising seas push into its tidal stretch which currently extends as far as Trenton. And the forecast intensity of new climate events like Superstorm Sandy in 2012 creates a huge challenge for state officials, nonprofits and academic experts who are working for further improvements.

“We really can’t rely on historic records now,” said Carol Collier, senior adviser on Watershed Management and Policy at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Maybe the drought of record in the 1960s won’t be the drought of record any more. We need to have our plans in place for these problems.”

Saltwater fears

The threat is highlighted by the latest forecasts from the Rutgers Climate Institute for 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2050, and 6 feet or more by the end of the century, raising fears that a line of saltwater will get closer to drinking-water intakes for Philadelphia and parts of South Jersey along the river’s estuary.

Saltwater encroachment would also threaten the river’s “very rare” freshwater wetlands, said Collier, the former executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission.

On the Delaware Bayshore of South Jersey, some residents are already being forced out of their homes by increasing flooding, said Kathy Klein, executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, a science-based nonprofit that coordinates the efforts of many local conservation groups.

“We have to have some honest conversations,” Klein said during the approximately 90-minute panel discussion. “Some of these people are going to have to move. If we don’t start really talking about it now, it’s going to be a complete crisis and we are not to going to be prepared to help these people move to other locations where they will be safe.”

Since Sandy, New Jersey officials have accelerated their buyouts of flood-prone properties on the Bayshore and other areas of the state through the Blue Acres program which has now purchased and demolished more than 700 homes.

Other areas of the Delaware River watershed are expected to see more harmful algal blooms (HABs) which clogged and closed many New Jersey lakes last summer as warming water temperatures and nutrient-laden stormwater runoff created the right conditions for the algae to thrive.

Prospect of persistent algal blooms

Although Gov. Phil Murphy has announced $13.5 million in funding to fight the blooms, that’s unlikely to fix the problem because it’s partly a result of the changing climate that’s beyond New Jersey’s control, said Bruce Friedman, director of the Bureau of Water Monitoring and Standards at the Department of Environmental Protection.

“It’s not an issue where you can just throw money and expect it to go away,” Friedman said. “It’s going to persist.”

Threats to the Delaware River and the wider environment are rooted in a consumer lifestyle that needs to change to create a more sustainable future, Friedman said.

On his way to the event venue, Friedman recalled seeing 14 Amazon trucks as an indicator of that consumerism.

“It’s a great time to be in environmental advocacy but it’s also a scary time because we are facing so many challenges right now,” he said. “The way we consume is unsustainable and we need to change that. It’s a tough decision. People like their shopping and their Amazon but that has an impact on the environment.”

Climate threats are being addressed by Murphy’s recent Executive Order 100 directing the Department of Environmental Protection to take a wide-ranging look at which environmental regulations need to be rewritten to allow New Jersey to mitigate and adapt to climate change, Friedman said.

“Nothing is off the table,” he said, following three recent DEP sessions to seek public input into the new regulations. “We’re really looking at some innovative changes, to not put people in harm’s way, to not put affordable housing in the flood plain.”

Considering a radical retreat from the Shore

Although barriers and levees are not likely to be a realistic defense against rising seas, and the radical idea of retreat from flood-prone areas is under consideration in the regulatory review, it’s likely to be a tough sell to persuade people not to build houses at the Jersey Shore, given its economic and cultural importance, Friedman said.

“You have to understand that the Shore is such an important driver for the state that that isn’t going to be something that people are going to accept right away,” he said. “It’s unfortunate but I think it’s probably going to be one of the last steps of a strategy.”

Still, panelists cited wins for the watershed stemming from the cooperation of state and local government, nonprofits, landowners and other stakeholders.

Alan Hunt, executive director of the Musconetcong Watershed Association in northwest New Jersey, said his group reduced bacteria in one of the river’s tributaries by 95% after teaming with researchers from Montclair State University, and working with local dairy farmers to reduce the impact of their herds on the waterway. The 10-year campaign, which Hunt called a “success story,” built riparian buffers and reinforced the streambed to stop cattle disturbing it.

He urged activists to collaborate with stakeholders including municipalities, landowners and state and county governments, to maximize their chances of success. “You can’t do it alone,” he said.

Panelists stressed the improvements to the watershed brought by federal and state regulation since the mid-20th century, and urged stakeholders to fight against any reversals, especially from climate change.

“The Delaware is a case study in how policy has succeeded,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Half a century ago, you could literally smell the Delaware from 5,000 feet in the air. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act, we’ve seen a massive recovery.”

He urged stakeholders to defend the improvements not only with their personal lifestyle choices but by becoming active campaigners.

“Work with public officials, show up at public hearings, and make sure your neighbors are familiar with these issues,” he said.