River of the Year for 2020: The Delaware River

American Rivers announces 2020 River of the Year alongside Most Endangered Rivers of 2020 release.

The Delaware River, DE

Good news is a little hard to find these days, but here’s a success story that’s worth celebrating: The Delaware River is the River of the Year for 2020.

American Rivers gave the Delaware this honor to recognize its momentous progress for water quality, river restoration and community revitalization.

“The Delaware River is a national success story,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers. “The River of the Year honor recognizes the hard work of many local advocates who understand that a healthy Delaware River is vital to the health of millions of people.”

This is a river that touches the lives of so many. Fifteen million people get their drinking water from the Delaware River. If you live in New York City, Philadelphia, Trenton or Wilmington – you’re drinking the Delaware. The river is also home to one of the largest freshwater ports in the world, and the river contributes billions of dollars to the economy every year from water supply, recreation, tourism and other benefits.

The river has come a long way. Seventy-five years ago, it was choked with pollution and sewage. Parts of the river were dead zones, unable to support fish or other aquatic life. According to the Delaware River Basin Commission, “The river’s water was so foul that it would turn the paint of ships brown as they traveled through or were docked for any period of time. People were sickened simply by the smell of the river.”

Fast forward to today. The Delaware River is on the mend and thriving. The quality of water in the Delaware has dramatically improved, fish and wildlife have returned in tremendous numbers, and the mainstem of the Delaware remains the longest free-flowing river in the eastern U.S., with the most extensive National Wild and Scenic River protection of any watershed in the country.

Delaware River, PA & NJ. | Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli
Delaware River, PA & NJ. | Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli

How did the river make such a dramatic comeback? American Rivers identified four key factors responsible for the Delaware River’s rebound:

  1. Federal, regional and state enforcement of clean water safeguards
  2. Innovative local water management, prioritizing natural infrastructure and equity
  3. State collaboration to ensure adequate water supplies
  4. Federal protections for the free-flowing river

Key to this success are the countless local individuals and groups who have worked for decades on the river’s behalf. The progress on the Delaware illustrates the power of partnership and collaboration.

And the good news continues. Just last week, New Jersey finalized new protections for 600 miles of waterways, thanks to advocacy by the many partners of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative and the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed.

The Delaware River can be an inspiration for other communities across the country.

“The Delaware shows how a healthy river can be an engine for thriving communities,” Irvin says.

Philadelphia, PA — along the Delaware River
Philadelphia, PA — along the Delaware River

How can a city protect its river, its greatest natural asset? How can we prioritize equity in river conservation efforts? How does clean water contribute to a strong economy? How can a healthy river be a source of strength and opportunity for all?

Read more about the secret to the Delaware River’s success, and learn how we can keep the positive momentum going, here.

“We must use these lessons to ensure healthy rivers, equitable access and clean water in cities nationwide,” says Irvin.

Last year’s River of the Year honor went to Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, recognizing the progress that has been made to clean up the river, and marking the 50th anniversary of the river catching fire that sparked the nation’s environmental movement.

American Rivers made the River of the Year announcement in conjunction with the release of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2020. The annual list spotlights ten rivers facing urgent threats. See: AmericanRivers.org/EndangeredRivers

30 responses to “River of the Year for 2020: The Delaware River

  1. I am the author of “A Paddler’s Guide to the Delaware River”. On any summer day thousands of people may be out there plunging through the rapids or lazing along the eddies. It’s wonderful to see our river get this recognition … and only a few years after being named among the “most endangered”. See you on the river!

  2. Growing up in Claymont, Delaware it was a short walk to the river to fish for some strong catfish, Never ate them due to the water quality but jts good to hear its alot cleaner now Liked to watch the big ships coming through to Delaware Bay.

  3. In the 60’s, I grew up in Gloucester City, and although we played along the bank of the River, we never swam in it. It had a strong, oily odor, and there was a lot of large, treacherous debris floating in the water and along the shore. We were told that the tides would drag you away and the undertow would pull you down so deep you would quickly drown. We also enjoyed trips to National Park, where we walked along the banks and hid in the Revolutionary War trenches where the Hessian soldiers hid from the British ships. I don’t think you’re allowed in the trenches these days.

  4. The banks of the river near Philadelphia are lined with trash, needles, and plastic. I’ve participated in environmental cleanups but it has a LONG way to go. The Dupont plant dumps tons of chemicals in the river. I read an article around 5 years ago about how the fish near the Dupont plant had no identifiable sex because the chemicals destroyed their reproductive systems.

  5. Having seen this river from beginning to end just a few years ago, I am not surprised by this news. Having called for protection of the river in my book “Delaware River Reflections,” I would like to think my words and images made a contribution, even if a small one. (amazon.com/author/willdaniel)

  6. Exciting to see the river getting more attention! If you’ve wanted to see all 301 miles of the Delaware River in one sitting, check out the Deleware River Index – a Google Earth aerial flydown of the river, overlaid with water quality data.


  7. I live near the river. I was so glad that Delaware River is once again peaceful for aquatic organisms and healthy for drinking water. I hope we keep the Delaware River clean and healthy!

  8. I’ve lived in northern New Jersey my whole life. Friends and I went canoeing on the Delaware as youngsters. Now semi-retired, my wife and I often take NJ road trips to find new things. I never realized how beautiful western NJ is, the hills, farmland and historic houses and places are gorgeous. And somehow we usually end up at some beautiful point along the Delaware River. This is my first visit to this site, so I’ll have to learn more, but thank you so much to the groups and individuals who have worked so hard and long to bring the river back. I pray it stays this way.

  9. I live on the East Branch Of The Delaware in Downsville NY. Our part of the river to Callicoon has been protected pretty well over the years through the hard work of “Friends of the Upper Delaware River” ,Trout Unlimited, Theodore Gordon Flyfishers, and other conservation organizations, it is nice to see our downstream neighbors doing their part. Capture the upper river with the Documentary Film ” Land Of Little Rivers” which is being released on many formats May 19th 2020 by Cinema Libre Studio. For more information go to http://WWW.CINEMALIBRESTUDIO.COM , On facebook at Land Of Little Rivers Film or the website http://WWW.LANDOFLITTLERIVERS.COM
    Bruce Concors Executive Producer

  10. I’ve lived near the Delaware my whole life. This story tells the hurdles we’ve gone through to get it back. The history of this river is like no other in the country. I often fantasize of living back when William Penn came here. Then during the World wars for the ship building and the factories who supplied the war efforts. Now with the help of all the organizations that fought the government to get it back it’s pristine beauty is fabulous. It is loaded with recreational activities. Move north 50 or so miles and it opens up to almost an uninhabited wonder. Lined with mountains and valleys. Just amazing! If you ever get a week or two, come visit Eastern PA. The border is this great river. Thanks again to all who worked persistently to bring it back. It was a struggle no group of people should ever have to fight to keep. Yes! We’re Number 1! Delaware River!

  11. The bridge pictured I believe is the DE Memorial Bridge. I grew up in Penn’s Grove, NJ In the 60’s and 70’s. That river was my front yard! Our house had a stone sea wall and when the tide was out we could walk on the rocky beach. We never swam in the river, but many people would water ski and fish there. I miss the beautiful sunsets and all of the sparking lights shining from DE.

  12. So with the recent EPA rollbacks of environmental protections of our water and air due to the current administrations lack of commitment,we may be back to the good old days of a polluted stinking toxic mess just like the 60’s.

    1. A comment; as long as there is NO roll back of “Clean Waters Act” we should be ok. I saw Delaware river O2 % go from zero at the Twin Span in 1975 to 6% (normal O2% ) in 1980, WHY? Because every Waste water treatment plant along the river and tributaries HAD to adhere. They were dumping raw sewage into the river previously . I saw 6% at Tinnicum Island (Philly airport 1980).

  13. I have been boating and swimming in the Delaware River for over 40 years Back in the 80’s I caught two dozen crabs 🦀 in Tinicum Township by the Philadelphia airport

    1. Signs in a park near me warn that people can only eat ONE fish per year that is caught in the waterway.

  14. I also grew up in Palmyra, and I can remember in the summer being able to smell the river before you could see it. At low tide there was tar on the banks and retaining walls. The US Steel plant in Tacony was cutting up old Liberty Ships, and dumping great amounts of multi-colored waste into the river through a huge pipe. The only things that seem to live in that “water” were eels and catfish. To this day, I cannot eat catfish, even though a different breed. So glad to see the remarkable comeback.

  15. Its got to be really bad out there because if you have seen the amount of plastic garbage I have on the banks of the river you would be shocked.

  16. We live along the Delaware River in Pike County and count ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding area and this gracious and glorious river.

  17. Great information appreciated it lived in Milford NJ my whole life a few in Upper Black Eddy and Riegelsville. Beautiful flowing river

  18. Wonderful for the Delaware. As a child we were told not to even wade in it…so far we have come! Please name the bridge(s) in the photo at beginning of the piece.

    1. That I believe is the Delaware memorial twin bridge- I live 2 miles from it and travel it everyday! I live on the Jersey side!:)

  19. I grew up in the 1940 -60 on that river next to the Tacony Palmyra bridge in Philadelphia. I can attest to the water quality improvement

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