WRA Spotlight


October 21, 2019

The Delaware River Basin: The Little Engine that Does!

Delaware River Basin

Ask ten people what they think about the Delaware River and you’ll probably get ten different answers. Chances are, not one of them will mention the economic contribution or the river’s status as a gateway to world trade.

Sometimes, even those who work directly within the commercial maritime industry are unaware of the importance of the Delaware River Basin as an engine that drives not only the tristate economy but that of the entire mid-Atlantic seaboard.

A few fun facts

Commercial maritime activity on the Delaware River is huge. For a start, our maritime terminals contribute over $77 billion to the regional economy, including:

  • $3.7 billion in direct business revenues
  • $1.6 billion in wages and salaries, generating another $3.5 billion in re-spending of direct income and local purchases
  • $655 million in state and local taxes
  • 135,000 total jobs

Ocean shipping is all about volume — bigger ships carry more cargo and thus generate more economic activity. That’s why our region’s business leaders have worked so hard over the last three decades to deepen the channel from 40 to 45 feet. The reality is that bigger ships need more water.

And for you history buffs, the natural depth of the Delaware River is 17 feet. We’ve been safely dredging the channel for well over a century.

At the turn of the 20th century, over 7,000 ships arrived at Delaware River ports each year, compared to the 2,400 or so annual arrivals now. Of course, the vessels plying the world’s oceans now dwarf those in use at that time. In the late 1800s, the largest steamers to visit the Delaware could haul about 800 tons, today the port is handling ships of over 62,000 tons!

What does any of this matter?

The U.S. is a net importing nation. About 95% of the goods we use every day come in by water. If you eat it, drink, read it, drive it, watch it, or wear it, chances are it got here on a large cargo ship.

Did you have a banana with your breakfast this morning? The Delaware River is the largest banana-importing region in the U.S. According to shipping giant Maersk, the largest ships can carry 745 million bananas, though, alas, these mega ships cannot transit the Delaware River. But it weren’t for our seaports, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy grapes, blueberries, kiwis, mangos and many other fruits during the winter months when U.S. producers aren’t growing.

While our region is known as a ‘niche’ port – that is we are known to have expertise handling certain commodities, such as fruit, newsprint, and cocoa beans (yes, our port makes Hershey bars possible!) — the reality is that most cargos come here in containers.

top 5 exports 2017-18 top 5 imports 2017-18

Carrying TVs and computers, clothes and shoes (a single container can hold up to 8,000 boxes of shoes), hair dryers, lawn equipment, and just about anything else, these twenty- or forty-foot steel boxes bring all those consumer goods that we rely on for our comfortable, healthy, and entertaining quality of life.

So when you look over at the river and see the large ships in port or underway, keep in mind that maritime commerce is an essential use of one of our most precious resources.

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Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin
Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin
7 N. Waterloo Rd., P.O. Box 223, Devon, PA 19333
P: 610.850.9106 F: 610.850.9107
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