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December 06, 2016
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Hidden Treasures of the Delaware

Mussels contribute to water quality and clarity through their filtering capacity. Clear water in the righthand tank containing mussels after less than an hour as compared to the original turbid water in the lefthand tank.
Photo by Jacob Rash, Virginia Tech

By Don Hamilton

Whether floating or wading the Delaware River, swimming in or just gazing at its waters, the most compelling scenery, for me, has always been the view beneath the surface. The riverbed itself and all the engaging aquatic life there and within the flow have been what’s held my attention. And the picture is usually clear and captivating.

When the Delaware flows high and muddy, as it sometimes does temporarily after rains and runoff events, my interest in being on the river drops off dramatically, though the scenery above the surface is plenty pleasing in its own right. But even a turbid Delaware clears up faster than most rivers under these circumstances, thanks in large part to an extensive and well-developed natural system that efficiently strains suspended particulate matter out of the water column. This powerful filtration system oftentimes helps to produce water of clarity equal to distilled water, as measured on a numerical scale (in Nephelometric Turbidity Units) and documented by the National Park Service’s water quality monitoring program.

So how did we get so lucky to have a widespread, built-in filtration system in the Delaware River that enables this marvelous viewing, provides numerous additional ecosystem benefits and works for free with no carbon footprint?

Freshwater mussels are not the most charismatic animals found in the Delaware, nor the most celebrated, but in terms of ecological function and benefit, they’re among the most important. They’re simple creatures that do a few key things, and do them well.