I have an opportunity to run a few trips in the Camden, NJ area. Not exactly the mecca for creek snorkeling. But I love getting into urban and suburban creeks. These are the forgotten rivers, tucked into the folds of suburbia and unrecognized by many who live near them. Snorkeling in them gives me the opportunity to illustrate the amazing life that lives in what many people have written off as waste systems, places that hold little value because they are perceived to hold no life. I looked forward to scouting a few promising locations.
It started to rain lightly as I explored the first site. A cloud of oil black runoff entered the stream from a storm water drain pipe after the streets were just barely wet. It looked like the smoke monster from Lost. I climbed the bank to the street and found the source: us. Each one of us who drives contributes to this blackness that likely contains hazardous chemicals like heavy metals from brakes, and oil, gas, and antifreeze from countless drips. It is a tragedy of the commons. We each contribute a small amount to the large total problem. So the solution lies in each of us removing our small contribution, by driving less and fixing leaks. This site wasn’t suitable, not only because of the horrible runoff, but because the river here was more like a lake. The bottom was soft mud and the water column would be chocolate milk after a minute in the water. I moved to the next site a few miles away.
The Pennsauken creek runs through a broad flat grassed flood plain that is lined by suburbia. But still for being in the middle of an urban area, this section of the Pennsauken felt pretty remote. Back yards ended at the edge of the creek on one side, but houses were hidden from view on the other by a thin veil of woods. I peered over the bank and saw a school of some kind of fish dart for deeper water over the sandy bottom. This creek was taking murky runoff from the rain as well, but this wasn’t nearly as black as what I witnessed at the first site, probably because the runoff had to travel down a half mile stretch of first order stream that likely served as a filter.
The Cooper River is the centerpiece of the Penny Packer Park. It is lined on both sides by trail, and open savannah woods. The river isn’t more than a block from full on suburbanization and urban land uses. I hiked along the shores which showed obvious evidence that this river recently took serious flood flows. Large sand bars were washed over. Flood debris – grasses, plastic wrappers, and Styrofoam bits – were plastered to overhanging tree branches at the level the water reached. Not surprising. One of the things that kills an urban streams is its severed hydrology. In a forested watershed, much of the rain water soaks into the ground and the creek level rises gradually. When it rains in an urban or suburban area the water hits hard surfaces like streets and roof tops and runs off with great force. As a result, urban streams rise quickly and flow hard. This causes stream beds to erode, and bottom habitat to degrade as the stream is scoured. Their waters choke with sediment after even a small amount of rain. Which is exactly what I saw in the Cooper River here – evidence of very high energy flows and murky water. But there was something else about the Cooper. As I walked over the bare sand bar, I saw hundreds of recently emptied Asian clam shells. Asian clams are invasive and tend to take over river systems, so celebrating their presence maybe doesn’t make sense. But they are life, living in a pretty heavily impacted stream. They are proof that life finds a way. As I hiked over the sand I found something even better. Recently empty alewife floater shells Alewife floaters are native freshwater mussels that I certainly didn’t expect to find here, a sign that maybe the Cooper is healthier than I thought, and stronger proof that when given half a chance, life finds a way.
These creeks are not untouched. The fact that I have to run fecal coliform tests to make sure the water is safe to enter is a disgraceful testament to how much we care for surface waters, even though our very existence depends on clean fresh water, and it gives a glimpse that these creeks are about as far from pristine as they can get. And yet still life finds a way and that life, when viewed in its element under water, is amazing. That’s what it’s is all about – showing people the incredible that lives among us, in the hopes that this new knowledge and connection will inspire action to not only protect what remains, but restore what once was. When given half a chance, life finds a way.