Emily Bergson-Shilcock, Katelyn Ginsberg and Christopher Conklin, of Fort Washington, and their children are seen during a recent Wissahickon Creek cleanup by volunteers. (Photo by Jamie Stewart)

Emily Bergson-Shilcock, Katelyn Ginsberg and Christopher Conklin, of Fort Washington, and their children are seen during a recent Wissahickon Creek cleanup by volunteers. (Photo by Jamie Stewart)

by Mary Nearpass

You may drive by it every day on the way to work, pick up or drop off children for after-school athletics, or you may be on your way to a yoga class or dinner in a nearby restaurant. But have you ever really stopped long enough to ask yourself, “What exactly is a ‘watershed,’ and why should I care?”

A watershed is an area of land that drains surrounding streams and tributaries to a single, larger body of water such as a creek, river or ocean. The Wissahickon Watershed consists of 64 square miles, flowing downhill to the Wissahickon Creek or one of its tributaries. Over many decades, the replacement of forests with housing and commercial development has resulted in a decrease in the amount of water that seeps into the ground.

As a result, creeks and rivers flood more often with heavy rains, bringing increased pollutants to our waterways. Whatever happens to the surrounding land in our communities affects the water quality of the creek. Protecting the Wissahickon necessitates that we all have a stake in protecting the land in this vital watershed.

Founded in 1957, Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association (WVWA) began as a non-profit land trust whose purpose to this day is to protect the quality and beauty of the Wissahickon Creek. Its mission is to protect the creek while enhancing all surrounding life, protecting and enhancing open space, promoting awareness and appreciation of environmental issues; promoting wise land use and management of natural resources and preserving cultural and historical sites.

Headquartered on Morris Avenue in Ambler at the Four Mils Barn and Nature Preserve, the WVWA home offices were originally designed and built in 1891. As a result of major floods over the years leaving the structure in a state of disrepair, extensive renovations were completed by National Lands Trust, and its doors were reopened in 1971. WVWA moved into the barn in 1976 and converted the building into offices.

Gina Craigo, Special Events Manager of WVWA, told us last week, “If your readers can make time for it, we are having an event called ‘A Creek in Crisis: Time for Action’ on Wednesday, May 13, 6 to 8 p.m., at the Arts Center Theater at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington. At 5:30, light refreshments will be served.” (Many readers will not get this paper until the day after the event, but many others do get it on Wednesdays.) The event is hosted by Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW).

So what CAN we all do to help? “The health and vitality of every stream is inherently tied to the surrounding land,” said Gina, “and how we use our land directly impacts the creek. There are many ways we can reduce our human impact on the creek and, over time, return it to its former glory.”

Anything that washes into storm drains during a rain event flows directly to the Wissahickon Creek and its tributaries without being filtered! This water brings things on the land into the creek including litter, pet waste and detergent from washing your car, household chemicals and yard clippings or leaves. These are swept into the Wissahickon, increasing bacteria, and algae blooms from increased nutrients in the creek. “We can all help,” Gina said, “by composting yard clippings, using a car wash and picking up after your pets, using fewer pesticides and fertilizers and disposing of used car oil and household cleaners properly.”

Another way to protect your home and neighborhood is by installing a rain barrel or rain garden. “Rain gardens and barrels help to filter, evaporate or re-use storm water to prevent flash flooding in areas with high water-resistant cover. WVWA offers workshops a few times a year on how to make and install rain barrels at the modest cost of $75. “You can also grow a more natural lawn and garden by using native plants that don’t require extra watering, fertilizers or pesticides to thrive. Think about replacing part or all of your lawn with a natural meadow or rain garden for a native landscape that the local birds and butterflies will absolutely love!”

The Wissahickon Creek has its humble beginnings from two branches, one near the Wegman’s parking lot of the Montgomery Mall and one from the five points’ intersection where Cowpath Road comes in. This creek is a significant waterway providing approximately 10-15 percent of Philadelphia’s drinking water as well as recreation, beauty for area residents and habitat for local wildlife. The creek continues through nine municipalities to the meeting of the Schuylkill River. Over 130 species of birds can be found in the watershed, as well as 15 mammal species and 574 species of native plants.

So, the next time you “take a hike” along our beautiful Wissahickon, keep in mind how lucky you are to have such a pristine bounty of water and what YOU can do to help improve it.

More information at 215-646-8866 or www.wvwa.org, or follow WVWA on Facebook.