Interactive StoryMap of Schuylkill River documents its ecological status & local perceptions

It’s River’s Month in Pennsylvania. To celebrate, the nonprofit Schuylkill River Greenways, in partnership with Berks Nature, Bartram’s Garden, The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Stroud Water Research Center, and Princeton Hydro launched a new interactive ArcGIS StoryMap web page that reveals local perceptions of the Schuylkill River and documents the ecological status of the main stem through a year-long water quality and trash monitoring project:

“For decades we have heard misgivings from residents throughout the watershed about the water quality of the Schuylkill River, and unfortunately the terrible reputation that the river had from years of polluting continues to linger. But the truth is that today the river is actually quite healthy and clean,” said Tim Fenchel, Deputy Director of Schuylkill River Greenways. “In this project we set out to work with our partners and community members to finally set the record straight with solid data about the health of the river.”

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The ultimate goal of this new publicly-available resource is to connect residents and communities with the Schuylkill River and to encourage engagement with this special resource.

“This project brought together the conservation community and community scientists to understand the water quality and social perceptions of the Schuylkill River,” said Michael Hartshorne, Director of Aquatics at Princeton Hydro. “The results showed that the river, while having challenges as many waterbodies do, is a vibrant corridor that offers many recreational and environmental opportunities for those that live in the region.”

To understand local perceptions of the Schuylkill River’s residents, community opinion survey was conducted. Over 300 community members from Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties participated. Overall, it found that a majority of people do care about the river (56%) and bike or walk along it (60%).

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However, many are not confident whether the river is clean or safe to use for recreational activity, clean enough to swim in, or safe to eat fish from. When asked about the cause of river contamination, an overwhelming majority (85%) cited “Trash and Litter” as the problem. This insight was used to drive the priorities for water quality monitoring and inspired the launch of a new Community Science trash monitoring program.

To determine the ecological status of the river, water quality data for one year was collected. Water temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, and conductivity were continuously measured at four locations. Bacteria sampling for Enterococci coli (E. coli) was also conducted at each station over the course of the study.

“Protecting safe recreational access to rivers and streams is one of the most important contributions we as environmental stewards can make to local communities. This project has made great strides in supporting this cause on the Schuylkill River,” said David Bressler, Project Facilitator at Stroud Water Research Center.

To complement the water quality sampling, the team recruited “Community Scientists” to monitor and measure trash along the river by conducting 5-minute visual assessments.

It aimed to document critical areas of trash accumulation or dumping points in order to guide management efforts to better deal with this pollution. Over 100 responses were logged by volunteers. Overall, the results were positive; between 73% and 90% of sites on the main stem of the Schuylkill River were rated as optimal. The participants deemed the study reach to be clean and safe for both human and aquatic life, however, there are certainly locations along the Schuylkill River that could be cleaned up.

The data collected tells the tale of a vibrant river corridor with numerous opportunities for kayaking, fishing, bird watching, hiking, and biking. The dry weather data showed water quality conditions to be ideal during the time periods most people would utilize the river. E. coli concentrations were low, and transparency is high as shown by turbidity levels. Still, the river is constrained within an environment that spans the more agriculturally rich upstream reaches down to urbanized Philadelphia.

Agricultural erosion, stormwater, and suburban pollutants are a challenge upstream, while stormwater runoff, litter, and sewer overflows are a primary concern during rainfall events in the more urbanized portions of the river. During rainfall, elevated E. coli, turbidity, and trash which causes poor water quality conditions were measured. However, this should not deter those who love and enjoy the river from using it, understanding that the safest conditions are likely following periods of dry weather.

“Our coordinated monitoring effort has been a special opportunity to capture snapshots of the river from top to bottom at specific points in time. The data we collected drives home that the Schuylkill is by many measures a healthy river bouncing back from intense industrial pollution. Different issues affect different locations along its 135 miles, but we are all connected upstream and downstream!,” said Chloe Wang, River Programs Coordinator at Bartram’s Garden.

“In addition to our learnings about water quality, having water samples analyzed at both a professional lab and using DIY methods at our own sites helped us to understand the accuracy of the low-cost tools we can use in community science and education programs.”

Additionally, the project partners were able to put the collected data to action by submitting it to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, one of the regulatory agencies responsible for implementing the Clean Water Act for the Schuylkill. “There is so much more to learn about the river, but I hope this work helps people make informed decisions about when to get out on the water, and draws attention to opportunities to continue improving river health,” expressed Wang.

The water quality and trash assessment sampling protocol and interactive ArcGIS Story Map was designed by Princeton Hydro, with input from all the project partners. Detailed results and data from the perception and options survey, water quality monitoring, and trash assessment monitoring can be found on the StoryMap.

“Land and water are intrinsically connected – you can’t have healthy landscapes without healthy watersheds. Supporting this relationship is core to Berks Nature’s mission and conservation work, and through our 74-year tenure as Berks County’s land trust, we’ve seen the Schuylkill River flow cleaner and cleaner,” said Michael Griffith, Education & Watershed Specialist at Berks Nature. “We were thrilled to participate in this project not only as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of this regionally significant waterway, but also to shift public perceptions of the Schuylkill River as a community asset.”

“As we had hoped, we found that the river is indeed in great shape and we are now trying to spread the good news that all kinds of recreation on the river are safe and encouraged – including kayaking, boating, and fishing,” said Fenchel. “We have an incredible recreational and environmental asset in this river and we want everyone to know about it”

The project was a team effort, with collaboration and engagement from all project partners. It was funded by the William Penn Foundation who has long been a supporter of this and similar projects throughout the Schuylkill and Delaware River Watersheds.

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