Reducing pollution in Pennsylvania’s streams

    Pennsylvania is second only to Alaksa in the mileage of streams flowing through the state.

    A coalition of environmental groups says those streams need more protection — and the group is urging the state Department of Environmental Protection to make some changes. Both groups are looking to local science to guide their decisions. From WHYY’s health and science desk Kerry Grens reports.


    Transcript of the radio report:

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    In this idyllic setting of rolling countryside, horse farms, and wineries in Chester County flows a pristine-looking stream.It’s home to trout, frogs, and water insects. Along its banks a lush forest stretches uphill.

    Sweeney: We’re walking down to the tributary of the White Clay Creek in the headwaters.

    Bern Sweeney is the director of the Stroud Water Research Center in Chester County. The beauty surrounding this stream hides the reality of an unhealthy waterway.

    Sweeny: We have a big environmental problem with degraded water quality in the United States, in Pennsylvania, in this basin we’re standing in right now.

    The White Clay Creek ends up flowing out of Newark, Delaware drinking faucets. Other, more polluted, tributaries feed into it — and the city pays money cleaning it up. Scientists at Stroud have been experimenting with ways to reduce pollution in the creek using native forest habitats. Decades ago, they planted trees along a stretch of the banks to replace a cow pasture.

    Sweeney: When you put a stream in a healthy setting — in other words if you have the right kinds of vegetation in a riparian zone. The stream itself starts reverting back to a more natural state. Both the configuration of the channel, the types of plant and animals communities in there and so on and so forth. And our research has shown over the years that the more natural the stream is, the more healthy and natural stream ecosystem the stream is in, the better that stream is able to do work for us.


    View White Clay Creek in a larger map


    By work, Sweeney means processing all the material that comes into the stream — leaves, deer feces, and contaminants like nitrogen from fertilizer — and making sure it doesn’t all flow downstream to the Newark treatment plant. A little upstream, the creek runs through private property with just a grass buffer.

    Sweeney: This stream, how wide would you say this stream is? A foot? A foot wide. You could easily jump across it.

    With a forest buffer a few yards downstream the stream widens to about twelve feet — giving it more surface area along the bottom for organisms to live and do the water cleaning. In a two-decade study on another stream nearby, Sweeney measured just how much work the trees along the edge of a stream can do to trap runoff compared to a stream without a forest on its banks.

    Sweeney: That buffer now, the trees are you know 18 years old, fairly significant size. We’re getting 26% of the nitrogen removed by the buffer and about 43% of the sediments removed by the buffer. We report that as really good news, if we could get forest buffers along all our small streams and were able to generate that kind of average then we would go a long way to reducing significant amounts of nutrients and sediments getting into our big rivers and estuaries like the Delaware and Chesapeake bay.

    The Pennsylvania Campaign for Clean Water would like to do exactly that — get buffers along all Pennsylvania streams. Bob Wendelgass is the chair of the campaign.

    Wendelgass: We are blessed with a lot of water, with a lot of streams and rivers. 83,000 miles of them. But unfortunately a lot of them are also polluted. 15 percent of our stream miles are now on the national dirty water list, I guess is the easiest way to refer to it. And one of the big sources of that pollution is runoff.=

    The campaign is made up of more than 125 environmental groups. Its new Buffers 100 proposal is asking the state Department of Environmental Proection to require a 100-foot wide strip of vegetation between streams and any new development. Wendelgass says it would go a long way to reducing runoff pollution.

    John Hines, the director of the DEP’s Bureau of Watershed Management says the department has always supported using buffers to protect streams — although there are no blanket requirements currently in place. Hines says that could change over the next year and a half.

    Hines: We’re looking at currently looking at our regulations and changes to them. As we talk about this in the open public forum with a number of sector groups, yes, we would entertain the components or in particular the science behind what is in the Buffers 100 campaign.

    But there is likely to be resistance to any requirement that makes it harder for developers to make the most use of building on their land. Grant Gulibon, regulatory specialist for the Pennsylvania Builders Association says a one-size-fits-all approach to protecting streams could limit developments without a lot of land to spare.

    Gulibon:There needs to be a balance I think struck between preservation of water quality, which we all support and believe is a very important component of livable communities. But at the same time making certain undue economic costs are not imposed on economic generators and on consumers. Housing is a very important industry in Pennsylvania, but it’s also an industry that at the same time is very sensitive to these types of costs.

    As the Department of Environmental Protection begins to draft new regulations in the fall, the public will have opportunity to weigh in on mandating buffers.

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