What are the hallmarks of a successful water project?

Julie Slavet
Oct 28, 2018

Native plants along Jenkintown Creek at Ethel Jordan Park

At the corner of Jenkintown Road and Osceola Avenue, you can still hear the voice of Ethel Jordan. On some days, it carries on the laughter of little playground acrobats; on others, the crack of a baseball bat. The park in this neighborhood bears Jordan’s name—she was the crossing guard who kept children safe for 32 years at the nearby intersection—and now it’s helping to protect clean water for millions.

Ethel Jordan Park sits along the Jenkintown Creek. The creek is small but mighty in the field of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI), natural and cost-efficient ways to slow the flow of polluted runoff into our waterways.

A small stream that spills into the Tacony, its waters eventually feed the Delaware River, the source of drinking water for 15 million people.

When the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF) asked volunteers to plant trees along the creek’s edge to protect it from polluted rainwater, Ethel Jordan’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren answered the call. They were joined by hundreds of neighbors and students from local schools.

As Rosanne Mistretta shared at TTF’s Clean Creek, Healthy Neighborhood Forum on October 16th, the Ethel Jordan tree-planting had all the hallmarks of a successful water project: a diverse community, meaningfully engaged, from a project’s beginning.

Mistretta is Abington Friends School’s director of experiential learning (and current President of TTF’s Board of Directors). She was one of six institutions who presented “best practices” at TTF’s gathering of clean water advocates.

The others included Judy Holton, Executive Director of Montgomery Planning Commission; Alyson Eliott, Assistant Manager, (who stood in for Bryan Havir, Manager of Cheltenham Township and TTF board Vice President for Montgomery County); Andrew Oles, Abington Township’s director of Parks & Recreation; Susan Harris of Cerulean, LLC and TTF board advisor; and Professor Andrea L. Welker, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Villanova University.  

Judy Holton, who is responsible for planning Montgomery County’s water resources, explained that 46 percent of the county’s drinking water relies on the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and another 26 percent on groundwater. The land that surrounds these sources is highly developed: 50 to 75 percent is covered by homes and businesses.

That makes stormwater runoff—the pollution collected by rain on its way to streams and wells—one of the biggest threats to drinking water and local ecosystems. To address the problem, Holton described a variety of tactics endorsed by the planning commission: limiting development in flood-prone areas, creating model ordinances that municipalities can adopt in their own stormwater planning, educating local homeowners and institutions, and supporting projects like rain gardens and creekside buffers, similar to the ones planted at Ethel Jordan Park.

On the municipal side, local governments are required by the Clean Water Act to submit their plans to reduce stream pollutants and sediment in specific amounts by the year 2023. According to Alyson Elliott, Assistant Township Manager, Cheltenham, the installation of rain gardens and plant buffers will help achieve these targets, along with bioswales—absorbent, earthen alternatives to concrete gutters—on the grounds of municipally-owned spaces, including libraries, recreation centers and public parks.

Curtis Arboretum is one of several candidates for these “retrofits”: The township will replace trees whose root systems have been damaged by the weight of cars and resurface the parking lot with materials that can absorb excess water.

For private organizations and homeowners who need to manage their own stormwater issues, two of the most common questions are: How are such projects maintained and how are they funded?

On the subject of upkeep, Andrew Oles shared a lesson he’s learned time and time again as head of Abington Township’s park system: Landscape maintenance teams should be invited to the table at the beginning of a project. Their hard-earned wisdom positions them to see opportunities and manage pitfalls that others miss—from invasive species to destructive wildlife. 

Where do these collective efforts ultimately lead? Villanova professor Andrea Welker is part of a team of scientists who study the health of Jenkintown Creek. She concluded that “green interventions” have played an essential role in lowering dangerous levels of phosphorous, and in cooling the temperature of the waters so that fish and other creek-bound life have enough oxygen. More importantly, they turn this 3.6 mile stretch of creek into a model for the mighty Delaware to follow.

Be sure to check out the Forum materials here, which include information about future funding opportunities for water quality projects and the presentation slides. For more information about TTF’s work, check out our Projects and contact Julie Slavet at Julie@ttfwatershed.org. 

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