NEW CASTLE — More than 100 miles out to sea, Capt. Lauren Morgens and her crew on the Kalmar Nyckel have fished balloons and other trash out of the water more times than they can count.
“It makes you angry and sad,” Capt. Morgens said. “It’s the little things that a lot of us don’t think about like, ‘What happens to that little piece of plastic when you tear off the corner of a bag of chips?’ It ends up out here (in the ocean).”
Capt. Morgens has been steering Delaware’s tall ship for 15 years. Her crew washes the deck every day with water from wherever they are sailing, but in some places outside of the Delaware River Basin, she isn’t comfortable with the water quality.
However, several decades ago, the Delaware River Basin was in much worse shape than it is today.
Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Gov. John Carney’s representative on the Delaware River Basin Commission, said the Delaware River was seen as the “I-95 for ships” during the Industrial Revolution, which brought intense devastation to the waters during that time.
“(DRBC) has been focusing on how to return this river into the lifeblood that it was when settlers arrived,” he said.
On Thursday, several elected officials and members of DRBC — which monitors more than 13,000 square miles of waterways in four states — boarded the Kalmar Nyckel at the New Castle Pier to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the commission and the progress it has made.
Capt. Morgens noted the potential the Delaware River has to be a “true, intact ecosystem” because it is the only large river system east of the Mississippi that is undamned on its main stem. She said that’s where DRBC comes in.
“Sometimes, you get river and bay systems where the upstream states are not really pulling their weight, so no matter what you do downstream, you still have a hard time,” she said. “The Delaware (River) has the potential to really hit it out of the park. The DRBC is absolutely a necessary organization to bring all these players together and make this a great place.”
One thing about the Kalmar Nyckel is its use of the wind to power the ship, she said. The crew only uses the engines when necessary to keep on a “21st-century schedule,” therefore reducing pollution within the waterways it travels.
Founded in 1989, the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation is the nonprofit educational organization that rebuilt, owns and operates the “Tall Ship of Delaware” as a cultural and maritime heritage resource.
The original vessel was one of America’s pioneering colonial ships. Known as the Swedish Mayflower of the Delaware Valley, she carried the settlers who founded the colony of New Sweden in 1638 and established Fort Christina, the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley.
Although programs on the Kalmar Nyckel mainly teach passengers about history, geography and technology, Capt. Morgens said a healthy body of water is essential for those teachings, as well.
“Having a waterway that has things to give and being able to show a schoolkid a log covered in turtles or a great blue heron eating a fish, that’s a huge part of a good education experience,” she said. “If those fish (and the water source) are contaminated, those things won’t be there anymore.”
John Yagecic, manager of water-quality assessment for DRBC, said the commission is constantly measuring results in the Delaware River Basin, including salt levels, fish migration, emerging contaminants and dissolved oxygen, which is an issue at the forefront of the agency’s agenda.
“We’ve got a project happening right now where we’re developing a very sophisticated model of the (Delaware) Estuary, and we’re going to use that model to come up with a new dissolved-oxygen criteria and also figure out how to meet that criteria,” he said.
Before organizations like DRBC and the Environmental Protection Agency were formed, pollution in the estuary was so severe that there was nearly no dissolved oxygen in the water, which eliminated aquatic organisms from that zone and prevented migratory fish from spawning and the return migration of the young back to the sea, he said.
Mr. Yagecic also called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a major problem in the Delaware River Basin.
“They are a pollutant that magnifies up through the food chain, so even if you have relatively low levels out in the water column, those low levels stick to algae, and then, small fish eat the algae, and bigger fish eat the small fish, and by the time you get to fish that we would catch, the concentrations are very hot,” he said.
DRBC developed a total maximum daily load for PCBs in 2003 and another in 2006, which Mr. Yagecic said environmentalists have been instrumental in implementing. Since beginning a pollution-minimization program in 2005, PCBs have dropped by 76%, he added.
Joining DRBC officials Thursday were Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.; Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del.; and New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer, along with some Pennsylvania representatives.
Sen. Carper said it is possible to have cleaner air, cleaner water and a cleaner overall environment, while also creating new jobs. He said legislation passed earlier this year doubled the funding for wastewater sanitation and added about $6 million in grant money for oppressed communities suffering from unclean water.
“What we have done in the legislation and what we’re working on with the (DRBC) is to make sure that we have drinking water,” he said. “When people turn on their spigots, they (need to) have something they can drink and be healthy.”