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Water Quality FAQs

At the Creek in Crisis town hall meeting held May 13, 2015, at Germantown Academy, attendees had the chance to submit their own questions to be answered by the panelists. The following questions were answered by Chris Crockett of Philadelphia Water Department; Jeff Featherstone, Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities and Professor in the Department of Community and Regional Planning (CRP) at Temple University; Michael Helbing, Staff Attorney at PennFuture; Stephanie Figary, Water Quality Program Manager at the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association; Sarah Marley, Outreach Manager at Friends of the Wissahickon.

Why is new housing and commercial development allowed in a floodplain area?

“It’s not!” It’s strictly illegal to build in the floodplain. Historically, development has occurred in the floodplain and is now in harm’s way. However, the floodplains have been poorly mapped in the past, and are constantly in flux. Upstream changes in stormwater and development affect floodplains downstream, making these floodplains change or expand due to poor management.

Is there a legal possibility for municipalities to form a consortium for purposes of dealing with stormwater runoff?

WVWA, in partnership with Friends of the Wissahickon and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, is working hard to create a dialogue with all stakeholders in the watershed that will improve stormwater management, TMDLs, and MS4s. In the near future, we hope to be looking at a larger collaboration to solve these problems in the watershed. Recent legislation in Pennsylvania (Act 68 of 2013 and Act 123 of 2014) has made it possible for municipalities to formally come together to form “authorities” for the purpose of managing stormwater.  These authorities could be formed to manage stormwater for multiple municipalities.  An authority is one possible outcome of the collaboration within the Wissahickon watershed.

How do pesticides like Round-up affect the health of the creek?

When Round-up gets into the creek it impacts any of the pollution sensitive organisms including fish, insects, and amphibians. This, like other toxins, may not have detrimental impacts to all of the adult organisms, but can have negative impacts for the developing organisms. This is particularly true for amphibians that have very porous skin that allows more chemicals into their body. As with any toxin or chemical, the amount and frequency of exposure will determine how much harm it causes an organism.

Why does rain result in higher bacterial levels in the creek?

All animals in the watershed create waste. This all runs off every time it rains. This contains lots of bacteria and pathogens, which can survive for a long time and contaminate drinking water for Philadelphia.

What can be done to reduce phosphorus levels in the creek?

Phosphorus levels can be reduced in the creek by reducing stormwater run-off, improving wastewater treatment plants, increasing riparian buffers, and reducing fertilizer use. Stormwater run-off can be reduced by managing stormwater on your own property through rain gardens, rain barrels, and planting native plants that allow for more rainwater infiltration.  Improving wastewater treatment plants would reduce the amount of phosphorus that is released into the creek in the treated effluent. Increased riparian buffers would give the creek a final defense against run-off with high phosphorus as the plants could use the nutrient and prevent it from entering the creek. Lastly, the simplest way to reduce phosphorus levels in the creek is to reduce the use of fertilizers throughout the watershed on personal, commercial, and public properties.  Consider only using fertilizers in the fall, or not at all!

What is the average pH level in the creek?

The average pH in the creek is between 7.5 and 8, which is within a natural range.

Is it algae growing downstream from the Philadelphia Cricket Club?

There are high levels of algae growing throughout the Wissahickon Watershed, particularly in the main stem of the Wissahickon. It can be found throughout the year, but is seen even more in sunlit areas in the summer months. Some amount of algae necessary to have a healthy ecosystem, but too much algae has detrimental impacts because the algae will use up all of the available oxygen during the night time hours, leaving very little left over for the aquatic insects and fish.

Are elevated coliform bacteria after storm events due to the inadequate capacity of upstream sewage plants emptying to the creek or its tributaries in Montgomery County?

Not exactly. In Montgomery County there are separate piping systems for water going to the wastewater treatment plants, and stormwater that is released directly into the creek.  This removes the risk of storm water overtopping the wastewater plants and creating an issue referred to as ‘combine sewer overflows.’ During rain events the wastewater treatment plants may still take on extra water due to old pipes and aging sewer infrastructure, but not to the point of a combined sewer system. It is more likely that the increased bacteria concentrations are from rainwater running across the land and picking up bacteria as it heads to the creek. Just another reminder to pick up after your pets and to allow the riparian buffer to grow!