Group aims to restore, explore the Cooper River in New Jersey

Some Camden youth are exploring the Cooper River, which was once nothing more than a watery dumping ground.
Wednesday, June 22, 2022
CAMDEN, New Jersey (WPVI) -- As a diver jumped into the Cooper River, suited up in scuba gear, so began a mission below the surface.

Divers went to the bottom of the river in Camden County, New Jersey to plant a species of plants grown to help the river and the wildlife that call it home.

The plant is often referred to as river celery. Its long, thin stalks are perfect for fish to hide in or for other geese or wildlife to eat.

The river can now sustain that type of wildlife thanks to a cleaning effort that has lasted for decades. It's part of a journey that began 50 years ago with the Clean Water Act, which was signed when the Cooper River nothing more than a watery dumping ground.

The water was once 40% raw sewage.

"As a kid, I literally remember seeing so much trash wash up by the aquarium and thinking 'why is the water so dirty?'" said Anthony Lara, who works with the Center for Aquatic Sciences and played an integral part in growing the river celery.

The mayor of Camden, Victor Carstarphen, assisted divers as they planted the greenery at the bottom of the river. He handed them each collection of river celery as he and other dignitaries stayed on board a boat that carried them out into the water.

Now that the river is cleaner, it's time to explore - and who better to do it than the youth of Camden? They have grown up with a river in their own backyard, but many have never had the chance to explore it.

"The reason I wanted to be involved is it's a new experience," said Jaycel Santos, who is a student at Urban Promise Academy.

The team Santos is part of is on a mission to find the source of the Cooper River. They're looking for the smallest point of origin on land where the water source begins.

"This expedition has never been done before. It has been done perhaps by Native Americans, but since then, in recorded history, no one has done what this group has attempted to do," said Don Baugh, president of the non-profit Upstream Alliance.

After a blessing from the Indigenous People Foundation, the teens and the professional explorers loaded up for a six-day, 16-mile journey. The teens are going with the non-profit Upstream Alliance and a photographer from National Geographic. They'll kayak for hours a day and head back to a base camp nightly in Camden.

"Eventually, the water will go so low that we're not going to be able to go on kayaks anymore and we'll look for the source stream of this river," said Anand Varma, a freelance photographer for National Geographic Magazine.

The group will report its findings to the city of Camden next week. Eventually, there will be a movie made about their adventure which is supported by a $40,000 donation to Upstream Alliance from the American Water Charitable Foundation and New Jersey American Water.

"We'll be kayaking, we'll be camping, we'll be bushwhacking," said Jermaine Brown, who is also a student at Urban Promise Academy. "All this just to find the source of the Cooper River, which sounds pretty fun!"

Their goal, though, is not just to find the Cooper River's source. The expedition is also meant to highlight the river as a beautiful resource.

"It's a hidden gem back here," said Carstarphen. "It really is."
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