In 1940, the tidal Delaware River was “one of the most grossly polluted areas in the United States.” During the 1950s, water quality was so poor along the river at Philadelphia that zero oxygen levels prevented migration of American shad leading to near extirpation of the species. Since then, water quality in the Delaware Basin has improved with implementation of the 1961 Delaware River Basin Compact and 1970s Federal Clean Water Act Amendments. At 15 gages along the Delaware River and major tributaries between 1980 and 2005, water quality for dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment improved at 39%, remained constant at 51%, and degraded at 10% of the stations. Since 1980, improved water-quality stations out-numbered degraded stations by a 4 to 1 margin. Water quality remains good in the nontidal river above Trenton and, while improved, remains fair to poor for phosphorus and nitrogen in the tidal estuary near Philadelphia and in the Lehigh and Schuylkill tributaries. Water quality is good in heavily forested watersheds (>50%) and poor in highly cultivated watersheds. Water quality recovery in the Delaware Basin is coincident with implementation of environmental laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s and is congruent with return of striped bass, shad, blue crab, and bald eagle populations.

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