by Samuel Newhouse
About 50 members of Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) and the public gathered on Thursday, Jan. 29 for the annual Public Projects meeting, to discuss progress on past work and look ahead to coming major projects.
“The big theme for the year is transition. We have leadership transitioning and have also completed the big Forbidden Drive Streambank project. That’s been on our deck for a long time and to see it done is very rewarding,” said Ruffian Tittmann, FOW’s new executive director, who took on the position on Jan. 1. She has been at FOW since 2006 and described working with the group as her “dream job.”
Forbidden Drive Streambank Stabilization
Tittmann took on her new role as the Forbidden Drive Streambank Stabilization Project was coming to a close in December 2019 after six years.
The complex project first came on FOW’s radar nearly a decade ago when the streambank collapse became evident due to the visible damage to Forbidden Drive. This erosion became so significant that chunks of paved trail had begun collapsing by 2013.
A team of engineers and park staff addressed the erosion at three streambank sites along Forbidden Drive: one 1,000 feet downstream from the Valley Green Inn, one on the Mt. Airy Ave. pedestrian bridge, and another downstream from the Kitchen’s Lane Bridge.
The slopes of the streambanks were stabilized with the installation of vegetated, encapsulated soil lifts, which look like terraces of compacted soil but will integrate into the existing slope.
“They create enough stability and area for natural vegetation to grow on, and then hopefully they become natural forest again,” Tittmann said.
The project also involved riprap revetments near the water — a layer of stones that stabilize the existing slope while allowing for drainage. The work was done painstakingly to protect the root structures of existing healthy trees in these streambanks.
The main new project that will take place in 2020 is work on the “Monster Trail,” also known as the yellow trail south of Bells Mills Road that splits off from Forbidden Drive. It was partly selected because, after the years-long effort to complete the Streambank Stabilization discussed above, the FOW wanted to handle some smaller-scale projects that had been waiting for attention, Tittmann said.
It’s expected to require an estimated 500 volunteer hours and to include work such as installing a rock-armored swale along the trail’s lower tread, de-berming (removing the ridge of dirt that naturally forms on trails and can obstruct water flow) and regrading the trail and improving the climbing turn, which has eroded significantly.
“It is a very classic, FOW-style project – this kind of hybrid style of contractors and volunteers working together on the same project and the project leaving not just an improvement on the land, but also greater technical skills for the organization and its volunteers,” Tittmann said.
There were three more projects discussed at the Public Projects meeting that will go into the planning stage this year, and some into the permitting stage.
The biggest one coming up is the Valley Green Run Restoration & Pedestrian Bridge. This project is not just restoration of the popular trail which runs along Valley Green Road and is currently shut off to parkgoers due to serious erosion, but also the construction of a brand new pedestrian board walk alongside it which is envisioned as a new “signature feature” of the park and an exciting new element that could add significantly to the Wissahickon experience, Tittmann said.
Design and permitting will also begin in 2020 for the Lavender Trail Gully North project. A gully that has formed through the Lavender Trail, which is in the corner of the park bounded by Chestnut Hill Avenue and Crefeld Avenue, has grown to create serious issues.
“The gully has scarred the hillside,” Tittmann said. “Folks tell me they remember when it was just a little divot, just a little indentation. Now it’s swallowed the trail, which used to cross it. A little wooden footbridge has been washed away. It is undermining the forest there, and discharging large amounts of sediment into the creek.”
Lastly, the FOW in 2020 will work on a master plan for restroom facilities in the Wissahickon. As a demonstration project, a phase 1 of sorts for the implementation of the master plan, FOW is hopeful that a new restroom facility will be installed.
While it may not sound glamorous, Tittmann said at the public meeting that lack of restrooms may be a factor that makes certain areas of the park less popular than they could be, while other areas, which do have restrooms, seem to receive a disproportionate volume.
“Our surveys show that restrooms are a highly desirable amenity to have when you’re out visiting a large natural area. Not having that does keep some folks from enjoying the area,” Tittmann said.
Devil’s Pool Problems Addressed?
2019 also saw the FOW continuing to address issues of litter and overcrowding at Devil’s Pool, which in the summer of 2018 got so intense that surrounding trailheads were closed for several weekends in a row.
The amount of litter that FOW volunteers had to remove from the area did go down in 2019, while visitation still went up. Tittmann attributed success on the litter front to work by FOW in partnership with Parks and Rec., City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., and other city departments. The FOW had a paid seasonal crew working on the trailheads around Devil’s Pool to communicate with parkgoers about “Leave No Trace” values and the importance of not littering. That increased messaging seemed to work, while, perhaps counter-intuitively, removing garbage cans from the area also seemed to reduce the amount of trash parkgoers left behind.