Watershed Watch: Springside Chestnut Hill Academy Students Take Deep Analytical Dive into the Wissahickon

Education // January 10, 2019

(Excerpted from a September 2018 SCH news article)

For the past 25 years, Springside Chestnut Hill (SCH) Academy students have been testing water samples, evaluating stream biodiversity, and analyzing the surrounding riparian zone along the Wissahickon Creek, which supplies drinking water to one-third of Philadelphians.

From their earliest days at SCH, students are taught to be thoughtful stewards of the Wissahickon Creek and surrounding woods. In the fall, science teacher and Department Chair Scott Stein, along with fellow science teachers, took the Grade 11 biology classes to the Wissahickon to survey macroinvertebrate species and conduct chemical testing of the water. The students also examined the stream habitat using the same EPA Stream Habitat assessment that stream survey groups use nationally. This assessment looks at factors such as the condition of the banks, fine particle sediment levels, and litter.

Luna Moskal (’20) said some of her major takeaways from the lab were how human activity can have such a large impact on rivers and streams, and how heavy rainstorms can then lead to changes in nitrate levels, which affect the oxygen in the water, and then affects the creatures in the water.

SCH students monitoring the water quality of Wissahickon Creek

Stein and science teacher Lisa Queeno said the water quality of the creek has fluctuated over the years and can even change day-to-day. They found many pollution-tolerant species (leeches and snails) and only a handful of species that are sensitive to pollution, such as mayflies. In the fall, students also looked at the turbidity (cloudiness) of the water and conducted pH, phosphate, dissolved oxygen, and nitrate testing. In addition, they tested for fecal coliform, which may come from animal waste or human waste emanating from wastewater treatment plants upstream. SCH’s science teachers noted that fecal coliforms are expected to be present, but in low levels; high levels mean that there may be pathogens in the water. (They advised students not to swim in the water or even enter knee-deep.)

Students also used the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping tool to analyze land use and population density in the Wissahickon Watershed. Using this software, students were able to plug in the school’s zip code and view sites around the Wissahickon that are water dischargers or handle hazardous waste, and sites that report to the EPA for toxic releases and air pollution.  Areas with high population density are a sign of probable high stormwater runoff.

“It just shows that we need to do a better job as a community to help clean it,” Abbie Rorke (’20) said. “As a school, we do try to limit all the runoff that goes to it, like [with] the rain gardens. However, just from around Chestnut Hill, and the school as well, there is runoff that will always get into it.”

The science teachers sent students on a scavenger hunt on campus to identify the many ways SCH reduces stormwater runoff through its rain gardens, the Stacy Levy downspout sculpture, permeable parking lots, underground stormwater dry wells, and rain barrels. The playing fields were also constructed with special water drainage and retention capabilities, so that stormwater can infiltrate and make its way into the groundwater below. (For more information see FOW Newsletter, Spring 2013, p. 6.) Stein said that the school has specific plans to reduce runoff from the future McCausland Lower School & Commons, situated at the edge of Wissahickon Valley Park and slated to open in fall 2019.

Students also analyzed water flow at their own homes and consulted with their parents on how to reduce runoff. The final piece of the analysis was a Wissahickon Creek Report Card written by each student, giving letter grades to individual factors tested and the creek’s overall health, and making a specific recommendation on how to improve any factor that earned a low grade.

Continue reading about the state of the Wissahickon Creek and follow up to the Wissahickon Watershed panel discussion, Communities Connecting for a Clean Wissahickon, in the Winter 2018 newsletter.