Over the past year, I’ve been getting to know some of the local organizations that work to make Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where I live, a better place. It’s like a treasure hunt, and the gems I am finding are small nonprofits that are having a very real impact on important local issues. These groups are run by a lot of dedicated and determined people who recognize that environmentalism isn’t just about what we do with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and that community planning isn’t just for Copenhagen. It’s about what we do, right here, where we live. The environment is in our backyards. It’s the park down the street, and the stream that runs through the schoolyard.
The Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, or TTF, is one such organization that is doing important work for the environment and for water quality in our area. TTF cares for the 33-square-mile watershed around the creeks in its name. The Tookany Creek starts in Montgomery County, and winds its way into Philadelphia where it becomes the Tacony Creek and meanders through Tacony Creek Park. Further downstream where it merges with the Wingohocking Creek, it becomes the Frankford Creek, and from there flows out to the Delaware River. Those 32+ stream miles make for a long name, but Julie Slavet, Executive Director of TTF, explains its importance: “…The folks that decided to set TTF up…decided that it was important that our name reflected our geography, that people identify with geographies. So that’s why we have this sort of crazy long name. It gives us an opportunity when we start talking to explain why we have that name.”
The watershed itself encompasses a long list of ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. In Montgomery County, Abington, Jenkintown, Cheltenham, Springfield and Rockledge are all or partly within its bounds. In Philadelphia it runs through numerous neighborhoods, among them Cedarbrook, East Mount Airy, Fern Rock, Frankford, Germantown, Hunting Park, Juniata Park, Olney, Oxford Circle, and West Oak Lane.
TTF’s mission is this: “TTF is dedicated to improving the health and vitality of our watershed by engaging our communities in education, stewardship, restoration, and advocacy.” That mission translates into a wide variety of projects, from planting riparian buffers along streams and organizing cleanups, to bird walks in Tacony Creek Park and block parties in Philadelphia’s economically-challenged Frankford neighborhood. One of TTF’s greatest strengths is their emphasis on collaboration with other local organizations and with the communities they serve. Sometimes this results in an overabundance of project ideas, so they refer back to their mission statement to keep them on course, help them decide where to invest their time and resources, and determine which projects will have the most impact. A big part of this isn’t just accomplishing set goals — it’s about getting the community excited about supporting those goals. Says Julie, “It isn’t just that we want to go plant a buffer, and improve the creek that way — we want to make sure that we involve people in doing it, that we educate them about why it’s important, and then we get them all riled up so they go talk to other people as well as elected officials about why that’s important.”
Julie describes how TTF got its start: “Because of some federal and state requirements, a couple of river conservation plans were done integrating watershed management plans. And what those did was bring together people to talk about the challenges that our watershed faces, and to talk about what they could do to improve the watershed. And those people decided, particularly the Philadelphia Water Department, Cheltenham Township, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, that they wanted to create an organization that could work across municipal lines.” Her explanation points to a problem that many watershed organizations face — the fact that waterways and watersheds are not neatly confined to a single town, city, or county jurisdiction — they frequently span large areas and diverse populations. And finding ways to reach out to the many very different populations in TTF’s watershed is both their biggest challenge, and their biggest point of pride, because they do it very well. Getting the word out about their events is crucial, and in addition to more traditional outreach tools like door-to-door canvassing and phone calls, their strategy includes an extensive social media presence. You can (and should) follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
A lot of TTF’s recent efforts have centered on involving the various communities in which they work in building riparian buffers and rain gardens. Riparian buffers are created by planting native trees and shrubs alongside a stream bed. When it rains, these plants drink up a lot of the rain and filter it before it flows into the waterway and continues downstream. Rain gardens perform a similar function and are created by planting an area that receives a lot of storm water runoff, usually near a downspout that channels water from a roof (here’s how to make one in your own backyard). Both can dramatically reduce the runoff in a rainstorm, and this is important for several reasons. Storm water runoff washes pollution from roadways, parking lots, and chemically treated lawns directly into local waterways, as well as into storm drains which eventually empty into streams and rivers. Either way, all that pollution ends up in the water supply. Here in Glenside, a lot of that runoff also ends up in our basements and turns local roads into ponds. But perhaps the most immediately appalling problem is this — when the sewer system fills with more rainwater than it can handle, as it does quite frequently, it causes sewage overflows downstream in the city. The sewage overflow problem is bad enough that the Philadelphia Water Department has a web page, updated daily, that shows you the level of sewage contamination at sites all over Philadelphia.
Julie Slavet describes one of TTF’s recent successes in Montgomery County: “…At Abington Friends School…the headwaters of the Jenkintown Creek come right up behind the lower school. You know, you walk in there, and it gets really squishy — that’s where the creek comes up. So we planted a really major buffer there…this coming fall, we’ll be installing a rain garden that will capture the runoff from the lower school parking lot. So instead of the lower school parking lot immediately polluting the creek right at the top, we’re going to be trying to mitigate that.”
The Abington Friends School community is really excited to be engaging in a deeper level of stewardship of its 50-acre campus, and the creek that runs through it. The projects with TTF are giving them the opportunity to do that, and to include the students in that effort. The result improves the health of the creek, while also offering students an important hands-on experience caring for the local environment. In just two days, about 350 trees and shrubs were planted, working with the students first on a Friday, and with the entire community on Saturday. Julie adds, “So what that meant was that…kids brought their parents to see the tree or shrub that they had planted the day before. …It was really very effective.”
Efforts in the city are a different animal. Most of the streams that used to flow through Philadelphia were forced underground as the land was developed, into an intricate network of approximately 3,000 miles of sewers. Explains Julie, “It’s a very different kind of environment, because the people can’t see all the creeks and tributaries like they can upstream.” This is part of why Tacony Creek Park is so important — it’s a visible waterway that people can enjoy and experience directly. And yet, oddly, many people in the surrounding neighborhoods aren’t aware of it. Julie describes what happens when people see it for the first time: “They’ll get to the bottom of the trail…and they’ll see the creek, and they’ll say ‘I didn’t even know this was here.’ And for these folks, they don’t have the Parkway or the Oval…this is the green space for them. So we’re trying to make sure that we get folks back into that. So we do nature and bird walks, we do everything that we can to get people into that park, to build Friends groups, to build stewardship.” This isn’t an easy task — Tacony Creek Park is part of some of Philadelphia’s most challenged neighborhoods. It’s also one of the places that regularly sees sewage overflows in a heavy rain. But TTF makes it the focal point of a lot of their community outreach, because it is a place where people can connect with nature, and be reminded that even in the city, there is an environment worth caring for.
Another important aspect of TTF’s work is to act as an outreach organization for the Philadelphia Water Department in support of PWD’s ambitious Green Cities, Clean Waters plan, which aims to have the city’s storm water runoff problems solved in 25 years. “But,” Julie explains, “they have no control over what communities do upstream. So they really wanted to make sure that there was support for an organization that would work with upstream communities, to show them best practices, and get them to make a difference.” TTF fills that need upstream in Montgomery County. Downstream in the city, TTF helps build local support for green infrastructure projects like rain gardens by creating opportunities for hands-on involvement in their installation and maintenance. Julie elaborates, “When we started, there wasn’t a lot for people to see, and we know people really need to see things to understand what they mean.” That firsthand experience also helps people feel invested in the success of these projects.
TTF’s first big project in Philadelphia was the installation of a rain garden in Vernon Park in Germantown. It was raining the day they planted the garden in the fall of 2011. Julie Slavet recalls, “We pulled people off benches to help us dig and plant. It would not be there without the Friends of Vernon Park, and a number of other community groups.” She adds, “The community is very proud of that [rain garden], and helps us manage it.”
There are many metaphors about how what happens upstream affects people downstream. The whole point of these metaphors is to emphasize looking at the big picture, and at the interconnectedness of systems. Watershed management is the literal embodiment of this. Like the watershed it is named for, TTF crosses jurisdictional lines to unite a wide variety of people and places in caring for that watershed. In the ten years since its inception, TTF has done an outstanding job of this, and it will be exciting to see how the organization expands upon these efforts in the future.
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This post was written after attending the April 20th 2015 “Tapping Our Watershed” presentation, where Julie Slavet spoke about TTF’s work. “Tapping Our Watershed” is an ongoing speaker series, held on the third Monday of each month from 6-7 pm. They leave time at the end of each presentation for questions, and it’s always really interesting. If you’re curious about watersheds, storm water management policy, pollutants, or any other aspect of water science, don’t miss it! Click here for more information. These events are FREE, and the food at National Mechanics Bar and Restaurant, where the series is held, is excellent!