when water meets land.
Autumn has arrived at Bryn Coed Preserve in Chester Springs, Chester County. The trees in a section of the preserve known as the Enchanted Woods are just beginning to shift from green to scarlet, yellow, and brown. A rainstorm has blown in from the west and the curling leaves of hickories and tuliptrees are dripping down onto the understory canopy of dogwoods and hornbeams.
Imagine the path of those drops as they fall, making pattering sounds on the forest floor. They seep down into the soft, loamy layers of decomposing leaves and pine needles. The water makes its way deeper through the rocks, sand, and soil particles. Eventually, it reaches an impermeable layer of bedrock. As the rain continues to fall, these layers of soil—called an aquifer—become saturated with water. If you were to stick a very long straw deep down into the aquifer, the water would be clean enough to drink. That’s because the journey from forest floor to bedrock filters out pollutants.
That same autumn rainstorm happening over a shopping mall parking lot, a crowded subdivision, or any other impenetrable surface has a much different effect. The rain droplets come together along the pavement, roof shingles, and compacted lawns, picking up motor oil, fertilizer, and other chemicals. Because it can’t sink into the ground to be cleaned and stored, the water rushes into gutters, storm drains, and culverts that empty into small streams. As the storm continues, the streams can’t contain the rising water, so the banks of the stream begin to erode. Soil, trash, and other debris are carried downstream in the swirling, polluted water, eventually emptying into rivers and on into the ocean.
Water is central to our work preserving open space and caring for nature across eastern Pennsylvania, whether at our network of 42 nature preserves or on more than 400 other permanently preserved properties. Often, land’s ecological value is based on the streams and rivers that run through it. We know that every acre saved as open space means cleaner drinking water and additional natural flood prevention for those downstream.
the cost of cleaning water.
More than 240 miles of streams run through land owned or conserved by Natural Lands—but that is just a tiny fraction of the intricate web of waterways that flow together to create the Delaware River. This web, called a watershed, originates in the Catskill Mountains of New York and runs through Pennsylvania and New Jersey into the Delaware Bay and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. It provides drinking water for 15 million people, including the communities of New York City, Trenton, Philadelphia, and Wilmington.
Unfortunately, the water that all those communities rely on is no longer pristine. It must be heavily processed at facilities that chlorinate and filter the water multiple times, leaving a toxic slurry of heavy metals, bacteria, and synthetic organic chemicals like pesticides and PCBs. The residual sludge from the water treatment process goes into landfills or is discharged back into the ocean, posing a risk to aquatic life. And that’s when everything is working properly. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10 to 20 percent of community wastewater treatment facilities in the US have malfunctioning systems.
This process is expensive and carries a heavy environmental impact. In contrast, protected open space provides essential services—cleaning our water, reducing flooding, recharging groundwater. When we invest in saving land, it pays us back by providing these ongoing services year after year—free of charge.
Yet nationwide, the amount that water utilities in the United States spend annually to treat drinking water chemically is 19 times what the federal government invests in land protection. And a 2002 study by the Trust for Public Land and the American Water Works Association found that for every 10 percent increase in forest cover in the watershed, treatment and chemical costs decrease by about 20 percent.
water worsens as temperatures rise.
As our climate warms, forested natural areas are working overtime. Storms are becoming more frequent and more intense, leading to severe flooding and water pollution. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, precipitation from extremely heavy storms has increased 70 percent in our region since 1958. The trend is predicted to continue with average annual rainfall increasing eight percent, particularly in winter and spring. Pennsylvania experienced its wettest year on record in 2018.
Rising sea levels due to glacial melting will further add to flooding. Experts project that the tidal portion of the Delaware River is likely to rise one to four feet in the next century. Penn’s Landing, 30th Street Station, and the Philadelphia Airport are just a few locations that fall within that 1% floodplain (formerly known as the 100-year floodplain).
“Flooding is already the number one natural hazard in Philadelphia, and it’s likely to become more and more prevalent by the end of the century,” said Josh Lippert, the City of Philadelphia’s floodplain manager, in an interview with GRID Philly this summer. “There will be an expansion of the 1% floodplain as well as the amount of areas that will be either chronically inundated or permanently inundated by sea-level rise.”
The floodwaters threaten lives, destroy homes and other infrastructure, and wash fertilizers and manure into our waterways. These excess nutrients, combined with warmer temperatures, lead to the overgrowth of blue-green algae in our waterways and reservoirs. These toxic algal blooms can contaminate drinking water and kill fish and other aquatic life.
cleaner water. just add trees.
Back at Bryn Coed Preserve, the rain is coming down harder and the streams are beginning to rise. This preserve’s 520 acres of land is crisscrossed by more than 28,000 feet of waterways, including the headwaters—the source—of Pickering Creek. In fact, Bryn Coed encompasses 17 percent of the undeveloped land within the Pickering Creek watershed.
This protected open space already helps to keep the water clean and cool, but adding trees further bolsters the land’s ability to filter out pollutants and slow flood waters. Natural Lands has committed to creating and caring for at least 100 feet of “buffer” land along all waterways at the preserve. And that means planting trees… a lot of trees!
In 2019, our stewardship team coordinated the planting of 12,500 trees along 3.5 miles of streams. The native tree seedlings were selected for their tolerance of wet soil and include sycamore, silver maple, and swamp white oak. The project converted a whopping 64 acres of erosion-prone land along streams to what will become a forest. These seedlings join 55,000 other trees we’ve planted across the 23,000 acres of land under our care.
With all those miles of streams at Bryn Coed, there are many other projects in the works aimed at bolstering the land’s ability to provide natural ecological services for our community. Earlier this year, our land stewardship team worked with contractors to remove a collapsed underground tunnel in the Enchanted Woods. The stream, which had been routed through the old culvert years ago, was restored and the wetlands around it planted with native species.
“We’re also working on installing a series of boardwalks so visitors can hike these wet areas without damaging the trails or the plants along them,” said Preserve Manager Darin Groff. “And there are a lot of wet areas at Bryn Coed. All those streams are what made this land so important to save in the first place.”
4 states. 1 source. 49 partners
In 1739, Benjamin Franklin successfully petitioned the local government to prohibit local tanneries (leather-making factories) from dumping waste into a tributary of the Delaware River. In his 50s, Franklin led a commission to monitor water pollution and waste disposal in Pennsylvania. Even after death, he advocated for the city’s water, leaving money in his will for the construction of a freshwater pipeline that led to the formation of the Philadelphia Water Commission.
More than two centuries later, the Delaware River and her watershed—all the small creeks and streams that feed the river—are at greater risk than they were in Franklin’s lifetime. But the threats today are not industrial waste being pumped into the river. “Point source” pollution, as this waste is called, has been closely monitored and regulated since the 1970s. Now, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, water quality degradation comes primarily from runoff from lawns, farms, cities, and highways. This is known as “nonpoint source” pollution.
In 2014, the William Penn Foundation, which is based in Philadelphia, launched the Delaware River Watershed Initiative: an innovative, science-driven program designed to protect and restore water resources within eight critical places in the watershed.
The Foundation’s inspiring goal is that, by 2025, preservation and restoration projects will drive measurable improvements so there is a sustainable supply of clean water. They have committed a remarkable $150
million to date in support of the effort.
The Delaware River Watershed Initiative brings together a diverse group of more than 50 conservation non-profits to protect high quality waterways and to restore degraded ones within eight “clusters,”—priority areas within the watershed. Natural Lands works directly on land preservation, land use planning, and restoration projects in five of the eight clusters.
In many ways, the real impact of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative won’t be apparent for quite some time. The work of land conservation and restoration requires patience. However, the William Penn Foundation has made a long-term commitment to the Initiative because it holds great promise for ensuring safe, plentiful water for the millions of us who call the watershed home. It also has the potential to establish a ground-breaking model for similar work across the country.
We think Benjamin Franklin would approve.
The typical American lawn is an ecological wasteland, offering almost no resources for native insects that are the foundation of the entire food web. But what’s more, lawns are barely better than asphalt when it comes to absorbing rainwater.
It all comes down to roots. Turf grasses have wispy, shallow roots. These roots barely penetrate the soil, so they don’t provide a path for water droplets compared to native grasses, other perennial plants, and shrubs.
Of course, trees are the best when it comes to deep root systems. The roots of a mature oak tree can reach more than 15 feet in depth. As the tree grows, new roots grow and old roots die, leaving space in the soil as they decay where water can soak in and saturate the soil.
In addition to cleaning water and preventing floods, trees are one of the best defenses against a warming planet. Planting trees is one of the biggest and cheapest ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere to tackle the climate crisis, according to scientists who analyzed how many more trees could be planted without encroaching on crop land or urban areas worldwide. The research was published in the journal Science.
As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving climate change. New research estimates that a global planting program could remove two-thirds of all the emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere today.
what can you do?
Individual actions do add up! You can help protect our water supply and reduce the risks of increased storm activity.
- Replace turf grass with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. Visit Stoneleigh: a natural garden for inspiration.
- If you have a stream on your property, or in your neighborhood park, make sure the land alongside is planted with native trees and shrubs. The water should be as shaded as possible by vegetation.
- Let your local, state, and federal elected officials know that you support investment in land and water conservation.
- Donate to Natural Lands. The more resources we have, the more we can increase the pace of land and water protection.