By Kellie Patrick
Philadelphians may once again swim in the rivers that flank their city.
An engineering firm hired by the non-profit Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area is studying a dozen prospective sites – half on the Schuylkill, half on the Delaware – looking for several places where the water is clean and calm enough for bathing.
With $75,000 from the William Penn Foundation, the Heritage Area has also hired the designer of a floating pool, its bottom woven from high-tech fiber, its weight suspended in the water with pontoons.
“In Philadelphia, people swim in a pool or at the fountain in Logan Square,” said Sarah Thorp, executive director of the Delaware River City Corporation and a member of the advisory committee that will guide the river swimming project. “I can’t wait until the point where I can swim in the Delaware.”
The feasibility study is examining sites within the city borders, scattered along both rivers’ banks, said Kurt Zwikl, Heritage Area executive director. A preliminary report detailing the pros and cons of the several best-suited sites is expected by the end of June. For now, the locations under consideration have not been disclosed – but at least one of them is located within the seven-mile, central stretch of the Delaware River between Oregon and Allegheny.
The riverward neighborhoods were physically separated from the body of water that once defined them by the construction of I-95. There are few public access points.
“In this state and many others, rivers really were the lifeblood of the community, and we turned our backs to these rivers,” said river pool project manager Tom Kerr of the HDR engineering firm’s Allentown office.
When PennPraxis held public meetings in March to glean what city residents want from that section of riverfront, swimming was on the list. “This is all about bringing people back to the river,” said Kerr, an avid canoeist who spent 20 years running the Lehigh Valley’s Wildlands Conservancy before going to work for HDR.
It was the opportunity to bring people to the rivers that led the William Penn Foundation to fund the study, said spokesman Brent Thompson. “The more people interact with the river, the more likely they are to become stewards of it,” Thompson said. The project differs from other river projects the foundation has funded in a key way, he said. “This is the first time we’ve talked about people actually getting into the river – apart from on a boat.”
Kerr said the current dozen sites will be winnowed based on water quality, land ownership, physical characteristics of the site and easy access to the target audience.
There is hope that a river pool could spur economic development – which is part of the mission of the Heritage Area – so the pool or pools will be located in or near depressed areas and will be accessible by foot, bicycle and public transportation, Zwikl said. There must also be room for parking, he said.
Land ownership is an important consideration, because it is uncertain how much money could be raised to purchase land from a private owner, Kerr said. Some areas of the rivers are in heavy use by rowers or for other purposes that might conflict.
It would be more challenging to locate a river pool in an area where there is a fast current or a great difference in depth between high and low tide, he said. And the shape of the land is important, too – a sloping shoreline would be easier to work with than one with a steep drop-off, he said.
No timeline has been set for opening a pool, Zwikl said, as much rides on the results of the preliminary study.
The movement toward river swimming in Philadelphia is built on the work and will of two women: Philadelphia attorney and former Heritage Area board member Alice Ballard and her late mother, civic activist Ernesta Ballard.
The Logan Square Fountain that some Philadelphians now wade in? It sat broken and dry for decades until Ernesta Ballard organized the will and money to restore it. The elder Ballard was a member of the Fairmont Park Commission. She ran the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for years, and brought community gardening to economically depressed neighborhood.
Swimming in the Schuylkill was “her last, big idea,” Alice Ballard said. She wanted to give this opportunity to city children, in particular.
And so when Ernesta Ballard died in August 2005, Alice took up the work of fulfill her mom’s dream. Alice Ballard asked the William Penn Foundation for a grant, and convinced Zwikl that the Heritage Foundation should oversee the project. She continues to coordinate the various groups who must work together to make a pool open.
Zwikl said that when his organization convened the committee that is guiding the project last year, its members said the exploratory study should also consider sites along the Delaware – even though his organization usually sticks to the Schuylkill only.
With all the discussion about reinventing Philadelphia’s waterfront, the time for exploring one or more river swimming facilities could not be better, he said. The city recreation department now operates 74 outdoor pools 8 indoor pools. Last summer, several were closed for repair, but they are reopening this year.
This wouldn’t be the first time city residents enjoyed a floating river pool – but it would be the first time in a long time.
Project architect Meta Brunzema, whose office is in Manhattan, said her inspiration for the Beacon pool was the floating wooden bathhouses that graced both the Hudson and the Delaware in the 1800s. Philadelphia had one of the first in the nation, she said.
“These were like wooden cages that were made of a grid of two-by-fours in a square box. It was suspended in the river, held up by floatation devices,” Brunzema said. “It was a square, wooden building in the water, and the edges would be like a big boardwalk with changing rooms.”
Those who used the public baths did so as recreation. “But the city really put these out for a hygienic purpose,” she said. At that time, some of the urban poor, especially in immigrant communities, were living 10 to 12 people per apartment. “They wanted people to go out and wash because they were dirty,” Brunzema said.
The floating river baths were all closed by the 1930s, she said, because by then the rivers had themselves become too dirty. Some still think of Philadelphia’s rivers as dirty.
“The water quality is the biggest psychological barrier, and for years it was the biggest actual barrier,” Alice Ballard said. “Even after the water got good enough, people from Philadelphia still think you have to be out of your mind to jump in the water. We will need to do some work to help people understand that’s not the case anymore.”
The rivers are much cleaner partly due to regulations such as the Clean Water Act and partly due to the death of some riverside industries. (Despite the lack of public swimming sites, some Philadelphians tell stories of swimming in the Delaware in the days of the steel mills. Their mothers would always find out because the water turned their clothes orange.)
But while the water is cleaner, it remains unsuitable for swimming on some days – usually those following a heavy rain.
Ballard said the operation of any pool will be tied to Philadelphia Water Department’s Rivercast program – which is essentially an on-line forecast of water quality.
Rivercast currently measures water quality in the Schuylkill, said Chris Crockett, the water department’s manager of watershed sciences and engineering and the creator of the forecasting tool. However, he plans to expand it to include the Delaware in coming years, and that timeframe could be pushed up if the Delaware gets a river pool.
The water quality rating for each day is based on the likely level of e-coli and fecal coli form bacteria, Crockett said. These bacteria indicate the presence of other harmful organisms, he said.
Rain can lead to water quality problems because water runs off agricultural land upstream and brings animal waste into the water. If the storm is severe enough, sewage systems become overwhelmed and human waste can also end up in the water. But the water becomes clean again in about 48 hours, Crockett said.
Each day gets a rating of green, yellow or red. Green means all activities are safe. Yellow means conditions may not be safe for activities with direct water contact – such as swimming, but other activities such as fishing are fine. Red means the water is definitely not suitable for direct contact. On these days, the water is likely so rough that no one would want to go near it anyway, Crockett said.
The system errs on the side of caution, he said, and still about 60 percent of days are green days. Click here
for more about how Rivercast works.
Rivercast, which has been in operation since June 2005, would help assure pool users – and those responsible for their safety – that water quality is good, Ballard said.
And the river pool design created by project architect Brunzema means there is now a way to allow people to enjoy swimming in the river while keeping them confined to an area that will be watched by lifeguards, she said.
Many summers, someone, often a young person, drowns in the Delaware. A pool would be much safer because it defines an area that has lifeguards and would physically keep everyone in one spot, Zwikl said.
The bottom of the pool Brunzema designed - which will open this summer in Beacon, New York – is woven from a special, man-made fiver that is 15 times stronger than steel. The sides resemble a picket fence. “Fish pass through, but little kids don’t fall out,” she said.
Exactly what Philadelphia’s pool or pools would look like remains wide open, although a rough idea should be eked out for the June report, Brunzema said. It depends in part on the sites that are selected, since the design could compensate for some problems. The design would also take swimmers’ wishes into account, Kerr said.
A floating pool means people could wade or swim in the water without stepping in river muck on the bottom. “Americans like things that are clean and bright,” he said. “There is a hurdle, public acceptance of the idea of doing this.”
But Kerr predicts those kids that Ernesta Ballard had in mind for this project will come in droves – and convince their parents that swimming in the natural river is fantastic.
The permission of several city and state agencies, likely including the Department of Environmental Protection, would be needed before any pool could open, Zwikl said. The feasibility study will include a detailed list of necessary permits, he said.
Brunzema is hopeful that the lessons she learned in creating the Beacon pool – a project guided by legendary folk singer and environmentalist Pete Seeger - would help ease the process. She notes that many rivers have few boathouses, docks, decks or floating residences, and the reason is that the shadow such structures cast on the river bottom is a no-no environmentally.
Plants need light to grow, and fish need the plants. “The government is generally against anything that casts an additional shadow, and it requires enormous permits to create a permanent shadow,” she said. “I realized the solution was something transparent.”
Her first design was a sort of huge, plastic bubble – like a giant, floating kiddie pool. “It was beautiful” Brunzema said. But after showing it around a little, she realized the idea was not a good one. “It was like a big bowl – a plastic enclosure. People wanted to swim in the river.”
The bottom of the pool is a net made from Dyneema – a fiber made by the Dutch company DSM. The same stuff is used in rock-climbing ropes and sailboats. In the pool, the netting is stretched around a circle, similar to a drumhead. Users can walk on it or swim above it. Even the gangway has clear planks so light can get to the water.
The project got the needed permits, but with a caveat – the first pool had to be shrunk from the planned 66 feet in diameter to a smaller prototype, 20 feet in diameter and three feet deep. After this summers’ use, the agencies will decide whether to allow the larger pool.
“I redesigned it as a completely 21st Century version of the old bath house, but I didn’t want people to swim inside a building,” Brunzema said. “If I’m swimming in the river, I want the view. I want to see the sunset.”
Kellie Patrick is a freelance writer with a keen interest in the landscapes, plants and animals of Pennsylvania. A former newspaper reporter who worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other papers in Florida and Upstate New York, she lives near Philadelphia with her husband, dog and cat.