The Wissahickon is showing signs of stress according to environmental experts who spoke at a town hall meeting last night on the creek's health.

by Wesley Ratko

Is the Wissahickon creek healthy? That was the question of the night for more than 200 people who turned out to Springside Chestnut Hill Academy Thursday night for a town hall meeting on the matter. The meeting, titled “Wissahickon: A Creek in Crisis?”

The meeting, billed as “Wissahickon: A Creek in Crisis?”, was organized by Friends of the Wisshahickon and the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association and featured a panel of three environmental experts, each of whom addressed a different element of watershed health: physical, chemical, and biological. All three experts ended their talks with a list of actions residents can take to help make the watershed healthier.

The event was moderated by Patrick Starr, Executive Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, whose group is under contract to the Philadelphia Water Department to manage several watershed partnerships in the Delaware Valley, including the Wissahickon, to monitor water quality. Starr told those gathered he believed the Wissahickon was in crisis and that the purpose of the meeting was provide ideas for action. Starr called the Wissahickon an iconic watershed for the Philadelphia region.

John Jackson, a senior research scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center and self-described “bug guy,” focused on the biological dimension of the Wissahickon. Jackson said that the biological health of a stream can provide the best indicator of whether a stream is healthy or not. He looked specifically at pollution-sensitive insects like mayflies, stone flies, and caddis flies, which he described as “our canary in the coal mine.”

Jackson presented data that showed the number of these insects (or “”macroinvertebrates”) in the Wissahickon have been in decline for some time, especially when compared to other watersheds in less-developed areas. This decline, he says, in a clear indicator that the stream in poor health, a condition he blamed on the urban development surrounding the Wissahickon. Of all the land surrounding the Wissahickon, only 16 percent is forest.

The paving and concrete ubiquitous in urbanized areas is impervious to water, preventing it from being absorbed into the ground. When it rains, this storm water flows off that pavement, along gutters and curbs, to storm drains where it is discharged into creeks. Along the way, that water carries with it a variety of chemical contaminants left on the pavement – things like road salt and lawn fertilizer, which contain nitrates and phosphates. The result is a creek that features the conditions Jackson described.

“It’s about people,” he said, explaining that these chemicals end up in the Wissahickon and wreak havoc with the water chemistry that supports life in the watershed. Jackson added that one solution is to build barriers that would function to “break the connection between the people and the water.”

Perhaps the most shocking fact Jackson presented was that 95 percent of the water flowing in the Wissahickon between storms is waste water discharged from water treatment plants.

“Some days, if there were no discharge from the water treatment plants,” said Crockett, “there would be no base flow.”

Jackson urged the audience to do more, to try more things and to urge lawmakers to change the regulations.

“People are the puzzle – they created the puzzle, but they can also provide a solution,” he said. Jackson told the crowd that the crisis in the Wissahickon was long in the making, saying it took the Wissahickon more than 300 years to reach the condition it is in today, and that the process of reversing things would be slow.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.

Chris Crockett, Deputy Commissioner at the Philadelphia Water Department, discussed the chemical dimension of the watershed with a focus on its impact on drinking water. Crockett began by providing a history of Philadelphia’s drinking water sources and how Philadelphia still gets the bulk of its drinking water from the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.

He said the cost to engineer solutions to clean water is increasing, and that these cleaning processes – like filtering water through the ground – are already found in nature. Cleaning water through a process called reverse osmosis requires energy and results in carbon dioxide emissions. He added that even with the costs, there is a limit to what can be removed from water.

“We can’t engineer our way out of everything,” he said. Personal care products, discarded pharmaceuticals and even Iodine-131 , used in the treatment of cancer patients, is ending up in the water table in increasing levels, and the ability for water treatment plants to deal with those contaminants is limited.

Crockett urged people to safely dispose of their unused medications, to clean up after their dogs and to conserve water.

“We’re not going to stop until the creeks are as fit as they can get,” he said.

Carol Collier, Executive Director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, covered the physical dimensions of the Wissahickon. She described the Wissahickon as a small but critical sub-watershed of the Schuylkill River watershed. She said that the political subdivisions across which creeks and rivers flow has always been a problem for responsible management of watersheds and that the Wissahickon is no exception.

At one point, Collier displayed a map of the watershed’s geology, the upper portion of which is characterized by shale deposits. Noting this, she told the crowd that there are no oil or natural gas deposits, prompting applause from those present.

Collier concluded her talk with assumptions for the future, noting that impacts due to climate change such as an increase in storm intensity, higher overall temperatures, and elevated precipitation in winter were inevitable and should be planned for.

“Things will only get worse from a climate perspective, so we have to plan for that,” she said.

Collier recommended planning on a watershed basis, but to implement solutions locally. She said knowledge of a watershed system – achieved through good data – was the key to sound watershed planning.