Recreation in Philadelphia’s Waterways: What to Know

The Philadelphia Water Department does not recommend swimming in any river or creek in Philadelphia. 

See the Philadelphia Water Department July 2020 Position Statement on Maintaining Secondary Contact Recreational Activities here.

Health and safety concerns exist when swimming or partaking in any recreational activity in rivers and creeks that involves immersion in water. Health risks include exposure to bacteria in water that can cause gastrointestinal illness. Safety risks include strong currents, deep water, and submerged obstacles that can cause potentially fatal injuries and drowning.

PWD supports recreational activities such as fishing and boating when done responsibly and where appropriate. Philly RiverCast and CSOcast are two forecasting tools created by PWD to provide additional guidance about water quality in Philadelphia’s rivers, creeks and streams.

What is PWD doing to reduce bacteria levels in the Delaware and Schuylkill River Watersheds?

Through the Green City, Clean Waters program, Philadelphia is currently upgrading infrastructure throughout our wastewater collection and treatment systems. The goal is to reduce sewer overflows, increase system capacity, and better manage stormwater. Reducing sewer overflow and stormwater runoff will, over time, lead to lower bacteria levels in local waterways.

Traditional infrastructure improvements include relining and replacing sewers, improving capacity within our collection system, and improving our three water pollution control plants.

Another key strategy of our stormwater management programs includes the installation of green stormwater infrastructure such as rain gardens, swales, planters, and green roofs, to allow more water to infiltrate into the ground or be used by plants instead of entering the sewer system. You can read about the many components of this program in detail here.

It’s important to remember that the Green City, Clean Waters program represents a 25-year plan to reduce combined sewer overflows. Although significant progress has been made, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.

While infrastructure investments made since 2011 have reduced sewer overflows, wet weather can still lead to billions of gallons of overflows impacting local waterways over the course of a typical year.

Combined sewer overflows are a source of water pollution. Why do they exist? Can PWD repair or replace the combined sewer system?

During dry weather, the combined sewer system and wastewater treatment plants have the capacity to transport and treat all the sanitary sewage entering the system. However, when flow in the sewers increases as a result of rainfall or snowmelt, the sewer pipes or treatment plants may reach their capacity. When this happens, the EPA permits Philadelphia, as it does with other cities with combined sewer systems, to discharge excess wastewater into nearby waterbodies to prevent health and human safety issues that may result from localized flooding in neighborhoods and in treatment plants.

Replacing the entire combined sewer system would be prohibitively expensive. As a utility, PWD must make careful decisions about our drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems while balancing the cost, which is passed on to our customers through water bills. As mentioned above, PWD’s 25-year plan to reduce CSOs is a work in progress—this is a multi-billion-dollar investment in traditional and green infrastructure. We are investing the time and the money needed to address the problem of combined sewer overflows.

Which types of recreational activities are considered safe in Philadelphia’s rivers and streams? Philadelphia’s waterways are considered safe for “secondary contact recreational activities.”

Secondary contact recreational activities are those in which a person is not likely to ingest water or be immersed in the water. These activities are considered safe when done responsibly, and include fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, and jet skiing.

What about swimming during extreme heat?

While extreme heat can make local waterways seem appealing for swimming and wading, the dangers of drowning, injury, and illness remain just as significant.

Please see the City of Philadelphia’s resources for extreme heat or call the heat helpline: (215) 765‑9040.

The Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation provides safe spaces for swimming and cooling off, with pools and spraygrounds located throughout the city. Read this post about water safety in city parks.

Pools were closed throughout 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but are planned to open in 2021. Visit Parks & Rec’s Find a swimming pool page for more information.

To locate a spray feature or sprinkler near you, use Parks & Rec’s map-based Finder.

What illnesses can be caused by swimming in rivers and streams?

Bacteria and other pathogens may be present in rivers and streams. When a person ingests water while swimming in a river or stream with high levels of bacteria or other pathogens, the result can be a gastrointestinal illness (GI). Symptoms of GI can include diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, loss of appetite, and fever. Depending on the bacteria or pathogen, different adverse health effects may occur, which include but are not limited to skin, ear, eye, and wound infections.

Is it safe to swim in the river during dry weather, when combined sewers are not overflowing?

Elevated levels of bacteria may remain in the river for several days after rain. Swimming presents additional safety risks unrelated to water quality, such as strong currents, including tidal currents, deep water, underwater debris, and other hazards that may cause injury or death.

Is it safe to swim at Devil’s Pool in Wissahickon Valley’s Cresheim Creek?

No, we do not recommend swimming in Devil’s Pool—or any of Philadelphia’s waterways. Swimming is prohibited in all of Philadelphia’s rivers and streams, which includes Devil’s Pool in Wissahickon Valley’s Cresheim Creek. Alternatively, Philadelphia maintains many indoor and outdoor community pools throughout the city where you can safely recreate when a lifeguard is present.

For more information, visit Find a swimming pool.

Is it safe to kayak or use paddle boats in the Schuylkill River downstream of the Fairmount Dam at places like Bartram’s Garden or Schuylkill Banks, and in the Delaware River at Penn’s Landing?

Boating is considered secondary contact recreation and it is generally safe to boat responsibly in areas of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers removed from shipping traffic and under supervision.

Is it safe for my pet to swim in the river?

The risks of recreating in the river are the same for pets as for their owners. Strong currents, drowning, and unseen objects such as fishing hooks or broken glass are a threat to even the best of swimmers. Pets should never be left unattended at the river. If a pet does become immersed in the river, it should be thoroughly bathed afterwards.

Read PWD’s Position Statement regarding the recreational designated use of the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

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