Green City, Clean Waters: Conserving the Wissahickon Creek

Conservation // May 26, 2021

By Joanne Dahme

In the late 19th century, the picturesque Wissahickon was the “go to” destination for Philadelphians, international visitors, artists and photographers who were anxious to experience and capture the sublime beauty of its gushing streams and rustic splendor.

It had been a working creek in the earlier part of the century but by 1868, the land surrounding the creek was acquired by the City with a commitment to protect a drinking water source and the mills that had lined its banks were removed.

Today the Wissahickon is still much loved and a favorite destination for anyone looking to escape urban life to commune with nature. The Wissahickon’s gifts to us are many and priceless; a flowing creek that provides sustenance to people and wildlife; a forest that gives our region shade and oxygen; steep, rocky trails to hike or a wide, flat linear path that invites us to walk, bike, jog, and share in the celebration of going outside with our dogs.

But the Wissahickon is also challenged. With a drainage area that is 24 percent covered by impervious surfaces, the creek suffers from:

  • Water quality impairments
  • Flow modification
  • Reduced base flow leading to the domination of baseflow by wastewater effluent
  • Erosion of streambanks and disconnection of historical floodplains
  • Invasive species
  • Sedimentation in streambeds, especially in important habitat areas of runs and pools
  • Loss of headwater wetland areas
  • Excessive algae growth during hot weather

The FOW and its many nonprofit and public partners do not take this lightly. Every day staff and volunteers, and other partners just as passionate about the creek, work to stave further degradation by removing litter, building sustainable trails, restoring streambanks, managing stormwater, and engaging and educating residents about the wildlife and native plants that have made their home here. This work is forever and requires an eternal pledge from all that place a foot on the valley’s soil to protect and conserve its natural beauty and ecological health.

On June 1, Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) Commissioner Randy Hayman will talk about what PWD is doing to restore the Wissahickon – and all of the City’s watersheds – from the harmful impacts of uncontrolled stormwater runoff. PWD’s Green City Clean Waters (GCCW) plan is celebrating its 10th year. This innovative, groundbreaking and simply amazing plan (I may be a bit biased) has pledged to transform one-third of the City’s impervious surfaces to green spaces or management systems that mimic Mother Nature on vitamins – capturing, detaining, cleaning and infiltrating the first inch and one-half of stormwater runoff (at 10 years, that’s 3 billion gallons) that hard, urban landscapes shed when it rains.

In the Wissahickon, PWD’s focus has been on the creation of stormwater treatment wetlands (Saylor’s Grove, Wise’s Mill, Cathedral Road), tributary restoration (Gorgas Run, Wise’s Mill, Bells Mill) and partnering with essential watershed heroes like FOW to transform watershed residents into watershed stewards. Commissioner Hayman will have many highlights to share and will be able to talk about future goals and anticipated GCCW achievements, while applauding the Wissahickon watershed community’s passion and perseverance when it comes to sustaining our priceless 1,800 acres of heaven on earth.

At FOW’s Annual Members Meeting this year, PWD Commissioner Randy Hayman will speaking on the latest developments at the Philadelphia Water Department, including the 10-year anniversary of the groundbreaking Green City, Clean Waters program. Join FOW as a member for your invite – as well as all the wonderful benefits of being a friend of the Wissahickon!

Joanne Dahme is the former Deputy Commissioner for Communications and Engagement for the Philadelphia Water Department and a current FOW Board Member. With more than 35 years of engineering program management, public relations, and government affairs experience with PWD, she also spent nearly a decade as the department’s Watersheds Programs Manager with the Office of Watersheds, directing the development and implementation of regional watershed partnerships. Joanne recently launched Mayfly Communications, a professional service that specializes in public engagement, education and communications around environmental policies and regulatory challenges with a focus on water resources.