Environmental Piece- Cooper River

Written Fall 2009.

Clean, water is very important, especially in small lakes and rivers. When the quality of a body of water is compromised, it affects the quality of larger bodies that it flows into. This ultimately affects our drinking water. The cycle continues until it affects all wildlife, plants and people. This is why taking care of our water and the environment surrounding it is so crucial.

            Cooper River is one of 36 tributaries which flow into the Delaware River. It runs west from Berlin Township to the Delaware River. The river flows 346.55 acres through Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, Collingswood and Haddon Township and comes equipped with many facilities such as two softball fields, one cross country course, four volleyball courts, the Cooper River Yacht Club and a sculpture garden.

            Cooper River is well known for its esteemed rowing events because of its Olympic-distance 2000 meter straightaway. There are also summer concerts and fireworks held there annually. There are many fundraisers such as benefit walks for causes like juvenile diabetes and breast cancer that are held at Cooper River as well.

            However, the Cooper River Watershed Study and Plan admits that “productive wetlands and valuable wildlife areas exist, but are struggling.”

            The water conditions of the Cooper River have been struggling for over ten years now, and with all the activity that happens in and around it, it is hard to understand why. According to the NJDEP Water Quality Assessment in January of 1994, “Cooper River…is a highly degraded urban stream receiving significant amounts of sewage treatment effluent and storm water runoff. Water quality monitoring performed on the Cooper River at Lindenwold, Lawnside and Haddonfield shows that water quality is generally good in the upper stretches of the stream, but rapidly worsens to some of the poorest quality surface waters in the State as it flows through Camden and adjoining towns. In addition, pesticide contamination in stream sediment and fish life has resulted in a recreational fishing ban on the Lower Cooper River.”

            One alleged source of the pollution, from Stone Creek, a tributary in Cooper River Lake, “could be the runoff of horse manure from the garden State Race Track after rain” and snow melts. The report also pinpoints other detrimental factors such as excess municipal and industrial wastewater dischargers, effects of urban storm water runoff and limited assimilation ability of the stream causing the problem.

            There hasn’t been another water quality assessment since this 1994 report because of the lack of grants provided by the government, as well as a lack of additional funding. Even without the official numbers, volunteers from the Delaware Riverkeeper group continue to fight to protect and preserve Cooper River and make its issues known to the public.

            Fred Stine, citizen action coordinator for the Delaware Riverkeeper group said that Cooper River is “significantly cleaner than 40 years ago thanks to the Clean Water Act and 14 sewer treatment plants being shut down.”

            Several students from Bishop Eustace High School in Pennsauken did some water sampling and concluded that the water quality was decent, however it still exceeds swimmability. Some point sources of the pollution include municipal and industrial wastewater discharges, although the regional sewage system is acting to eliminate most of the discharges.

            What’s causing the most damage though are the nonpoint pollution sources, which happen to be the most avoidable. Rain runoff from feces, fertilizer, driveways and streets causes a large part of the pollution. Suburban runoff like gas, oil and trash are also huge factors.

            “I’ll be the first to say I want to drive all over creation in my car and use fertilizer to have nice green grass so my kids can play, and if I wasn’t a tree hugger, I would,” said Stine.

            Thermal pollution causes the water temperatures to rise and sediment kills off the wildlife population in the river. A warmer water temperature means lower oxygen levels for fish and insects to thrive. You are then left with pollutant tolerant fish and insects such as carp, catfish and suckers. Fishing is permitted at Cooper River, but it is not recommended that fishermen take their fish home. The state advisory limits the amount of fish eaten from Cooper River to a certain amount depending on age, gender and preexisting health.

             Groups such as the Cooper River Fishway Restoration Team are trying to do their part in the improvement process by restoring fish populations by creating fish ladders which aid fish in the spawning process. There are three that have been installed and although they haven’t been effective yet, they might over time once fish adapt to the changes in their environment.

            Another improvement to the quality of Cooper River is the allowance of shoreline vegetation to grow. Years ago, the plant life used to be mowed up to the water’s edge, which was bad for the river. The plants around the water’s edge acts as a riparian buffer, which absorbs the nutrients from runoff of goose droppings and slows erosion. Regulations were put into effect for the natural vegetation and have since helped many bodies of water, including Cooper River.

            There have been noticeable improvements in the quality of wildlife as well as the water. Beaver and deer population is up most likely due to the adaptations of the species to the environment as well as the solitude of the nooks and crannies of the river that allows them to build and nest. Also, the population of blackbird cormorants has significantly increased, which is most noticeable in the summer on the water.

            Litter cleanups and tree and wildflower planting helps to improve the environment around the river, which then translates to the health of the river itself. Dredging also provides for a way to slow sediment going from land to lake. And although special groups like the Delaware Riverkeeper and Fishway Restoration Team try to do their part to raise awareness and become involved in restoration projects, it is ultimately up to the individual townships to make the final decisions.

            “The best way to fight for more funding or stop major detrimental changes is to attend township planning board meetings and get your voice heard,” said Stine. “Whatever you do, it is important to remember that we are all connected, and so is the environment; land, water, air. We need to be more responsible and really think about what we’re doing. It’s the small things that add up.”

                To become more involved in the projects or news concerning the South Jersey area, visit http://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/. Or just to learn more about Cooper River and all that it has to offer, go to the Camden County website at http://www.co.camden.nj.us/index.html. For additional information on the Pennsauken Planning Board, visit http://www.twp.pennsauken.nj.us/gov-planning_zoning.cfm. 

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