Friday, July 18, 2014

At the Headwaters

At the headwaters of my creek
My preserve is located in the center of the watershed drained by the creek flowing through the preserve.  Downstream of my preserve, the creek's floodplain and some of the adjacent steep slopes are pretty well protected in county and city parks.  But upstream of my preserve, the watershed has largely been built out in typical suburban style.

As a result, the biggest environmental problems with my creek are related to stormwater runoff from the impervious surfaces upstream of my preserve.  Stormwater generates problems like erosion, sedimentation, turbidity, flooding, and low stream baseflow between storms (because precipitation runs off impervious surfaces and does not have a chance to filter into the ground to recharge springs).

One of the largest Philadelphia-area philanthropic foundations recognizes these problems in my and my neighboring suburbanized watersheds, and the foundation has begun a multiyear, $37 million initiative to begin to address these problems.  On Tuesday, I learned that our organization had been awarded a $165,000 grant to create a stormwater detention wetland at the very headwaters of my creek.  The wetland basin will intercept the runoff from a 40-acre housing subdivision, infiltrate part of the water, and trap sediments, thereby improving water quality in the creek (we hope). 
Project manager (center) pointing out details of the project
Though my organization was awarded the grant, we will be building the wetland project on another non-profit's property: a summer camp for economically disadvantaged children.  The camp, which has a strong environmental education component, will use the wetland to teach children about the importance of stormwater management.  At 235 acres, the camp is the largest natural area upstream of my preserve, and it's located right at the headwaters of my creek.
A representative of the foundation (in pink, on right) explaining  the foundation's goals
On Wednesday, July 16, project engineers, university scientists, and a representative of the philanthropic foundation that is paying for the project visited the site - currently a wet swale in a meadow.  We'll be starting work on the project in the next few weeks.

I'm not overly excited by this project because (1) it's not in my preserve (where there's already plenty to do), (2) it's not going to make much of a difference in terms of water quality in a 56-square-mile watershed, and (3) there's almost no money in the tight budget for project administration.  However, it gives our organization good "press," receiving the grant makes me look good to my board of directors, and the project is a step in the right direction for the watershed, so I'll take it.
Departing the site.  There are worse places for a walk on a sunny summer afternoon.


packrat said...

I'll have to admit, Scott, that it sounded like a pretty exciting project until I read your last paragraph. Without an insider's insight it's often difficult to discern whether these projects have a political agenda, whether they're born of a sincere desire to make improvements, or both. Some good will come of this one, though, no doubt.

Mark P said...

Well, it's interesting even if it doesn't really do that much for your stream. With an urban watershed, it's hard for me to imagine a good way to resolve the problem completely.

Scott said...

Packrat: I believe the foundation that is providing the funding is very sincere in its efforts to improve water quality, but the approach they're taking is not the approach that I would take. The foundation is forcing our organization to collaborate with other like-minded organizations (probably a positive step in the right direction), and to work with our local municipalities to try to use projects like these as "carrots" to get the municipalities to improve their management of stormwater (also positive).

Scott said...

Mark: In a heavily developed urban watershed like ours, it's probably best to take a long-term view of the situation. It took 200 years to get us in this pickle, and it likely will take nearly as long to improve the situation. All of the municipalities now require new development and redevelopment to address stormwater, so as the old infrastructure wears out and is replaced, the problems with stormwater will gradually resolve themselves--over decades or more, of course.