Center for Sustainable Communities awarded watershed restoration grant

The Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University has been awarded a $1.235 million grant from the William Penn Foundation to provide oversight, expertise and support for what could potentially be dozens of restoration projects in the suburban portions of five watersheds in the Philadelphia region.

"The Center will have a lead technical role in managing William Penn's watershed protection effort for what the foundation has designated the Upstream Suburban Philadelphia Cluster of watersheds — one of the most complex watershed regions in the Delaware River Basin due to its dense population and high degree of concentrated development and impervious surface cover," said Dr. Jeffrey Featherstone, Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities and a Professor of Community and Regional Planning at Temple. "This funding will allow the Center to conduct modeling, monitoring, assessment and project oversight for projects undertaken by area municipalities and watershed organizations with the ultimate goal being to protect and improve the water quality and ecological conditions of the streams within these watersheds."

The grant is part of a $35 million multi-year initiative by the William Penn Foundation to protect and restore critical sources of drinking water for 15 million people, many in major cities including Philadelphia, New York, Camden and Wilmington. Monitoring data will enable the William Penn Foundations and other organization "to make more informed, evidence-based decisions going forward," said Laura Sparks, the foundation's Chief Philanthropy Officer.

"We are eager to use the data collected to inform real-time adjustments, analyze the potential of these projects across the watershed and magnify those results to catalyze widespread action grounded in high-quality science," she said.

The watersheds that the Center for Sustainable Communities will be responsible for within the Upstream Suburban Philadelphia Cluster include:

  • The Cobbs Creek Watershed, a 22.2 square mile area that includes portions of Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. Urbanization has converted the majority of the landscape to impervious surfaces ranging from 25 to 50 percent in most areas and up to 76 to 100 percent in areas close to the Philadelphia County border, according to the Philadelphia Water Department.

  • The Pennypack Creek Watershed, comprised of 56 square miles primarily within Montgomery County and parts of Bucks and Philadelphia counties. Stormwater runoff has the greatest influence on physical habitat and erosion-related problems within the watershed.

  • The Poquessing Creek Watershed, 22 square miles with portions in Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, suffers from large volumes of urban stormwater flows resulting from impervious cover making up over 30 percent of the land within the watershed.

  • The Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed, 29 miles within Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, has been impaired by habitat modification, stormwater flows and siltation — sediment that kills fish and wildlife and chokes streams.

  • The Wissahickon Creek Watershed is nearly 64 square miles covering portions of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. Stormwater flows resulting from extensive urbanization are a key stressor in the watershed and have de-stabilized most stream channels, according to Philadelphia Water Department studies.

The projects conducted as part of this initiative will focus specifically on the suburban sections of each watershed, which cover 131 square miles and a have a population of about 400,000 people.

"Over the past year, funded by a $75,000 grant from the foundation and working in partnership with several watershed and nonprofit organizations such as the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the Natural Lands Trust and the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association, we have examined hundreds of potential projects within the watersheds," said Featherstone. "We developed an implementation plan and culled those projects down to about 40, prioritizing problem areas that needed immediate attention — the idea is to start at the headwaters and work our way downstream toward Philadelphia."

According to Featherstone, proposed projects include infiltration systems for parking lots, restoring riparian buffers for eroded stream banks, improving management of stormwater runoff, stream channel restoration and upgrading existing stormwater management facilities.

"The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for these projects, using our plan as the primary basis for funding for our cluster," he said. "Additional RFPs will be issued on an annual basis. Depending on the projects that are funded, we will begin monitoring upstream and downstream to get a baseline on water quality — as these projects are completed, the expectation is that the quality will of course improve."

The William Penn Foundation will make all of the work conducted and data collected available to the public, according to Andrew Johnson, Senior Program Officer for Watershed Protection at William Penn Foundation.

"We hope to identify new evidence-based methods for avoiding or mitigating key stressors threatening water quality in major metropolitan areas, specifically urban storm water runoff, agricultural pollution, loss of forests in essential headwater areas and aquifer depletion," he said.

While the Center for Sustainable Communities will provide oversight for all of the projects, organizations within the watershed will act as local coordinators and sponsors of the various projects that receive funding. Coordinators include the Lower Merion Conservancy (Cobbs Creek Watershed); Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust (Pennypack Creek Watershed); Friends of the Poquessing Watershed; Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership; and the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association (Wissahickon Creek Watershed).

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council will lead public education, municipal engagement and landowner assistance strategies. The Center will continue its long-term partnership with the Villanova Urban Stormwater Partnership — known as the Temple-Villanova Sustainable Stormwater Initiative (T-VSSI), the two universities will lead technical support and research strategies for the cluster project.

"Nearly all stream segments within these watersheds have been designated as impaired by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection primarily due to stormwater runoff but also due to siltation or nutrients. Because this region is largely built-out with limited lands for new development, the opportunities to achieve water quality improvement lie in the restoration of urbanized lands," Featherstone said. "To date there has been little research linking the effectiveness of individual stormwater management control measures (SCMs) to watershed-wide restoration efforts — this work seeks to bridge that gap by monitoring both individual SCMs and their receiving streams. This linkage will enable designers, municipalities and watershed groups to move away from responding to stresses in the system toward identifying the key locations where intervention can be most effective, and the tipping points which make intervention more difficult, more costly, or in some cases, too late."

The Center for Sustainable Communities has a long history of research within some of the project watersheds having conducted detailed studies and comprehensive floodplain mapping for the Wissahickon and Pennypack Creek watersheds funded by the Philadelphia Water Department, Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA has adopted new floodplain maps developed by Center researchers. The multi-year project, according to Featherstone, will be cross disciplinary in every respect, engaging the talents and expertise of faculty and students from Temple programs such as Community and Regional Planning, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Robert Ryan from Engineering will lead the modeling work, while Dr. Laura Toran will head up the Center's monitoring activities. Center Research Fellow Rick Fromuth will direct the project oversight function and Assistant Director Dr. Mahbubur Meenar will oversee App Development and GIS operations.

"This is the type of research that the Center was created to do — working with municipalities, local state and federal groups and agencies to create a more sustainable environment. We hope to document change, learn what improves water quality and how to do a better job of managing our water resources," Featherstone said. "In order to assess the larger impact, you need to know enough about the individual projects to understand how they are affecting ecological health and stormwater management. I think this is the first research of its type that scales all the way up to the big regional picture and all the way down to ground level."