Get to Know the Wissahickon as Watershed

News // August 09, 2023

by Stan Kozakowski

Do you live in a watershed? The answer is “yes” unless you live on a boat in the ocean. A watershed is any land where rain that flows is “shed” downhill into a stream, creek, or river. Rain, if able, penetrates the ground where it is filtered and temporarily stored as in a “shed.” Surface water from smaller watersheds gathers, flows, and drains successively into other watersheds and ultimately into the sea.

The Wissahickon watershed is comprised of 64 square miles of land and approximately 134 miles of mostly small streams and tributaries, such as Monoshone and Cresheim Creeks that flow into the Wissahickon, then in succession to the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean.

Want to learn more about the Wissahickon Watershed? Sign up for Stan, Debbie, and Jim’s guided watershed hike on Saturday, August 12 here. 

The Wissahickon and its streams, meadows, wetlands, and forests are all a part of Lenapehoking, which is translated to “homelands of the Lenape.” The Lenape planted nut trees, created orchards, hunted the woods, and fished the waters. Their relationship with the land and water was sacred.

Healthy watersheds and their respective waterways are complex ecosystems that rely on a delicate balance of plants, fish, birds, other animals that rely on each other, and in most areas, interact with human beings.

Starting in the late 17th century, the colonists began to build mills throughout the Wissahickon Valley, bolstering the economy of Colonial Philadelphia and making it an industrial powerhouse and the nation’s largest city. Running water was the energy source that powered the mills to grind grains and spices; make paper, textiles, carpets, and linseed oil from flax seed; saw trees for lumber, etc. Later, the Wissahickon became a destination for people seeking recreation outside of Philadelphia. Seven taverns and inns, also called roadhouses, sprung up along the Wissahickon. The Valley was also the inspiration for poets and writers.

At the height of the milling industry, the Wissahickon looked very different from today. Most trees were cut down for buildings and animal pastures; mills spewed toxic waste into the creek; and kitchen waste and toilets from the roadhouses emptied directly into the waterways to be “flushed” away by the Wissahickon.

Water from near where the Wissahickon empties into the Schuylkill was piped as drinking water serving a large portion of the city. After multiple outbreaks of typhoid fever and other infections thought to be carried by the polluted water, the city of Philadelphia in the late 1860’s began buying the land surrounding the Wissahickon to protect its precious water supply. Over the ensuing years, mills were closed, trees planted, and a park made to conserve this once sacred land. The stewardship of the land and water fell initially solely on the Fairmount Park Commission. In 1924, the Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) was formed to conserve and protect the natural beauty and wildness of the Wissahickon Valley Park.

Today the 2,000 acre Wissahickon Valley Park appears to many people to have returned to its original balanced ecosystem. While much has improved, much remains to be done. While the large polluting mills and roadhouses are gone, today’s threats appear more subtle.  Land development in the city and in Montgomery County, which comprises ¾ of the Wissahickon Watershed, and our habits continually put the watershed at risk. Land development, including buildings, paved surfaces, and loss of native trees and plants increase surface water runoff and lead to surges of stormwater entering the creek. Rapidly rising and falling water levels erode banks and disrupt the delicate ecosystem. Remembering – “What goes on the ground, ends up in the water”- helps all of us identify those seemingly “little things” that can do damage to the ecosystem and the safety of the drinking water. These include excess lawn fertilizer; yard chemicals, animal waste, litter, road and sidewalk salt, and others.

Today everyone’s help is needed to conserve the park and the drinking water for up to 1/3 of Philadelphians. Homeowners can reduce stormwater runoff with rain barrels, rain gardens, and eco-patios; avoid excess and unnecessary lawn fertilizers and yard chemicals; remove invasive species of plants that do not capture rain water as effectively as native trees and plants; and dispose of litter, animal waste, and motor oil properly. When in the park, stay on designated trails to limit habitat destruction and limit your visit to Forbidden Drive during wet conditions, traveling on wet trails can increase erosion.

And finally, become an FOW member and/or volunteer with FOW to work as a community to conserve and improve this precious gem of the region.

Photo courtesy of  Brad Maule