by Kevin Dicciani
Dead fish, algae blooms, inorganic sediment and stagnant water — these are a few of the issues the Friends of Pastorius Park say need to be resolved at the park’s pond for the betterment of its aquatic ecosystem and the health and wellbeing of its wildlife.
“The murky and stagnant pond water this summer, along with dying and stinking dead fish, underlines the necessity of restoring Pastorius’ pond to health ASAP,” said Tracy Gardner, president of Friends of Pastorius Park (FoPP).
Pastorius Park, located on 15 acres of land donated to the City of Philadelphia by Dr. George Woodward in the early 1900s, was designed as a passive recreational park in 1935 by local landscape architect Frederick W. G. Peck. The park’s construction in 1936-37 was largely funded by the Works Progress Administration, though over the years Woodward funded many improvements, such as the warming hut.
The one-acre pond, the site of a former wetland, was part of Peck’s original design and was intended to be a skating pond in the winter and a passive pond for the remainder of the year. The pond is home to several species of amphibians, reptiles and fish, some native and some exotic-invasive, such as koi. Gardner said it is unknown how and when the exotic species were introduced to the pond, but they have been living in it for over a decade.
The FoPP is a volunteer, non-profit organization established in the 1980s as a voice for the community in maintaining the park as it was originally intended. Despite the park being owned by the city, which mows its grass and collects its trash, Gardner said the FoPP maintains the pond.
“Although the Park is owned by the city and upkeep is ultimately the city’s responsibility, FoPP maintains the pond and has done so for the past 15 years,” she said.
To mitigate the issues with the pond, the FoPP has been working and communicating with the city, Gardner said, in particular Councilwoman Cindy Bass.
“Councilperson Cindy Bass has been an advocate and very understanding and supportive of our efforts,” Gardner said. “We have met several times with representatives of their office and are working with them to figure out ways that they can support our efforts with the park and the pond.”
Councilwoman Bass said she and her office are aware of the importance of these issues to the neighborhood.
“This is something that is of very great concern to the community, and we are working to address the concerns as we know there are a number of very delicate issues here,” Bass said. “The first issue is the wildlife. We need to take care of the pond while not putting the wildlife in the area at risk, then we need to figure out ways to address the other issues at the pond for the sake of the community.”
Gardner said the current state of the pond can mainly be attributed to organic debris and inorganic sediment. Together they displace the pond’s water capacity and threaten the three circulation pumps, she said, and they contribute significantly to the stagnation of the water and the algae blooms.
A decade ago the FoPP installed three pumps to circulate water within the pond and carry it upstream to the headwall for reintroduction and aeration in the stream. But three years ago the pumps failed. Shortly thereafter the FoPP replaced them with three new and more powerful and efficient pumps.
When the pumps are operating, Gardner said, “the pond and moat appear to be healthier and are certainly more aesthetically pleasing.”
In the spring of 2015, however, Gardner said the FoPP had to inform the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation that the new pumps were now being defeated by 16-plus years of accumulated debris and sediment in the pond. She said the FoPP told Parks and Rec that it would not be able to properly maintain the pumps until the pond was cleaned and dredged.
The risks the debris and sediment pose to the circulation pumps have increased, Gardner said, so much so that the FoPP has not been able to operate them this season. As a result, she said, the pond’s water is stagnant and its various wildlife are suffering.
“There have been recent incidents of fish dying,” Gardner said. “FoPP has been removing the dead fish and disposing of them.”
The FoPP installed a well in the mid-1990s to supplement the water supply from the city, which over the years has refreshed the pond by releasing water from the headwall, a part of pond’s original design, located at the upper reach of the stream.
Gardner said the FoPP’s well has worked sporadically since its inception and had been out of commission since 2007 before being restored this past May. The fresh ground water from the well circulates the water, provides relief for the wildlife and reduces algae, she said.
Nevertheless, Gardner said the current water in the FoPP’s well “is of insufficient volume to compensate for evaporation from extreme summer temperatures and strong sunlight.”
The deficiency in fresh water, coupled with the inoperable pumps, have contributed to the algae blooms, Gardner said. There is also a likelihood that storm water runoff from nearby residential lawns have added to the problem, she said, as they are sometimes treated with fertilizers, which can lead to algae blooms.
City contractor suggests first steps
To explore potential avenues to fix the pond, city officials have visited the site along with their consultant, Princeton Hydro, an ecological and engineering consulting service that specializes in aquatic and terrestrial ecology. Princeton Hydro has taken water samples in addition to measuring and analyzing the water and its sediment, which Gardner said they found was taking up and displacing much of the water capacity.
She said Princeton Hydro also discovered that the pond’s debris and sediment were high in phosphorous, but at a level that falls within Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection standards for safe disposal. Furthermore, according to Gardner, Princeton Hydro said the pond’s sediment and debris do not pose a toxic or a health risk.
Testing and analyzing water samples from the pond has led to a commitment from Princeton Hydro to treat the pond with algaecide as well as dye to filter sunlight. Before that can happen, though, the exotic species must be removed while the pond is being drained in bags of oxygenated water and relocated to a creek-fed natural pond to prevent a “massive fish kill,” Gardner said.
The specific algaecide Princeton Hydro uses, Captain, is harmful to the invasive fish in the pond, like its koi, carp and goldfish. Gardner said they are highly-sensitive to the copper-based algaecide and will die if they are not removed from the pond during its application. The algaecide is not harmful to most of the wildlife, she said, and it is not a health risk to the dogs who swim in the pond.
After the pond is treated, cleaned and refilled with water, some of the native fish will be returned to the pond. Gardner said none of the koi, goldfish or carp will be reintroduced to the pond as this will result in their death due to Captain.
“As much care as possible will be taken to ensure safety of all the pond’s animals — turtles, bullfrogs, frogs, etcetera — and most will return to a much cleaner, better-oxygenated pond,” Gardner said.
However helpful the dye and algaecide may be, Gardner said, they “do nothing to address the serious and ongoing displacement of water through 16-plus years of accumulated debris and sediment.”
Ryan Rosenbaum, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, said he has witnessed firsthand the problems occurring at the pond.
“The issues at the pond have been a slight disappointment,” Rosenbaum said. “I have noticed people pulling their dogs away from the nasty soot that lines the parameter of the pond, I see children picking up dead fish that have surfaced to the top of the water, and I have seen the look and disgust of people who are besides themselves that a public park seems to be so obviously neglected.”
The CHCA hosts its annual summer concert series at Pastorius Park, which, for Rosenbaum, provides a contrast that is “bittersweet.”
“The sweetness is that you have this amazing bountiful park that is designed for dogs and families alike set against the backdrop of this magical outdoor concert experience, and the bitterness is the eyesore and ranker of the mishandled pond,” Rosenbaum said. “We do not want the embarrassment of having another summer with the bitter sweetness of this past summer. We want the attendees to have a sense of warmness and not be worried about their dogs and children getting sick over poorly treated pond conditions.”
Long term solutions
For a solution to these problems, Gardner said the FoPP believes the pond should be cleaned and dredged and the pond bottom and sides inspected for cracks. She said they cannot reactivate the three circulation pumps they maintain until the pond is dredged and cleaned. The last time this process was carried out, she said, was in 2000.
“In our estimation, this is long-overdue and should be part of a regular capital maintenance plan,” Gardner said, adding that the process should be undertaken, based on the FoPP’s experience, once every 10 years.
Improving pond health and reducing algae can also be accomplished if the city turns on its water supply to the pond to supplement the water coming from the FoPP’s well, Gardner said. In the past, she said, this supplemental water has provided critical relief in times of low-flow or no-flow from the spring. She said turning it on will improve pond health and reduce algae, and when the algae is reduced, the pond is more “aesthetically pleasing.”
Because of the high costs outlined in the Princeton Hydro report for sediment and debris removal, Gardner said the FoPP is working with its professional pond management contractor. The additional measures they are exploring together to remedy the pond encompass: “Draining the pond, relocating the exotic invasive fish species, dredging and safely disposing of sediment and debris, and helping restore the pond ecosystem.”
Gardner said the FoPP is brainstorming numerous options to better the current situation and restore the pond’s ecosystem.
“This may include additional/supplemental algae treatment, floating islands of plant materials for nutrient uptake and shade to help prevent algae blooms, aeration of the water, circulation of the water, and habitat creation to better support the native wildlife which now rely on the pond as habitat,” Gardner said.
Yet one obstacle in the way of the FoPP finding a definitive solution to these problems is a lack of funding. Gardner said the city told the FoPP that there is very little funding for these efforts.
“Funding is definitely an issue and it would help greatly to know what funding, capital or otherwise, is dedicated to the park each year so that FoPP and the city can work together most effectively,” Gardner said.
The FoPP has put in countless volunteer hours caring for the park, Gardner said, doing so “out of appreciation for and commitment to preserving the park as a vital, community asset.” Over the course of the past seven years the FoPP, Gardner said, has made considerable investments in the park, over $100,000.
For these reasons, Gardner said, “We feel that it is not unreasonable for the city to clean and dredge the pond as they did 16 years ago.”
Councilwoman Cindy Bass acknowledged the city’s budgetary issues, but said she believes fixing the problems at the pond is both necessary and possible.
“We know there is a cost issue, and Parks and Rec is on very limited budget, but we feel this is something that should be done and could be done,” Bass said. “Right now we are trying to find ways to make sure this is done quickly and efficiently.”
At this moment, facing a potential lack of funds, Gardner said the FoPP is exploring public-private partnerships to devise a short and long-term plan to manage both the park and pond and address its immediate needs.
The process of pairing the FoPP with public-private organizations is already in motion, according to Rosenbaum. He said the leadership of the CHCA, specifically Laura Lucas, president of the CHCA, is creating a forum to sort through the logistics and inviting city officials to attend community meetings and get involved in the dialogue surrounding the pond. He said the FoPP has “been steadfast in this endeavor.”
Councilwoman Bass confirmed that representatives from her office will be attending the community meetings.
Rosenbaum said fixing the park is a step-by-step process, comprised of two main ideas. The first involves devising a long-term strategy with the community and the city leadership and determining how the park is funded and maintained. Once those questions are answered, Rosenbaum said, the CHCA would pursue a sustained effort to stress the the importance of volunteering with the FoPP and financially supporting the FoPP as they create events and fundraisers in pursuit of beautifying the park.
“By having all parties working in unison for the betterment of the community, it allows us to maintain the wonderful reputation of Chestnut Hill,” he said.
In terms of an ultimate goal, Gardner said the FoPP wants the park and the pond to be maintained as an inviting space where the community and nature intersect.
“FoPP views the pond and other elements of the park’s water system, including its stream and moat/reflecting pool, as an aquatic ecosystem and proposes to manage it this way,” she said. “Park visitors, with whom FoPP members interact daily, experience Pastorius as just such a system, enjoying, often with their children, the seasonal appearances of spring peepers, turtles, herons, kingfishers, and other species.”