"Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife, are in fact plans to protect man."
Willistown Conservation Trust and Water
Since its founders began conserving land in 1979, the Trust’s geographic focal area has been organized around the Ridley, Crum, and Darby Creek watersheds. The headwaters of all three of these streams begin right here, bubbling out of the ground where they begin their journey to the Delaware River, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. We have long known that our land conservation efforts improve water quality, but thanks to a 2017 grant from the William Penn Foundation and a partnership with Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences, we will formalize our understanding of the impact of our work through research and education.
The Trust’s Watershed Conservation program is developing a system that will provide an in-depth look into the function of the three watersheds by establishing several long-term water quality monitoring sites with specialized, permanently installed, testing equipment. At each of these monitoring sites water chemistry will be continually tracked and each location will be monitored for insects on an annual basis to help increase our awareness of the health of each stream system and provide insight into the effects of land management practices.
What is the Trust Doing to Help our Waterways?
Healthy streams start with healthy landscapes! The Trust has been working hard to help landowners learn the best ways to keep our area beautiful and healthy. To learn more about how you can help to preserve the landscape for pollinators, birds and streams visit our Land Stewardship section.
Through the partnership with the William Penn Foundation, Drexel, The Academy of Natural Sciences, Stroud Water Research Center, CRC Watershed Association and others, the Trust has begun to conduct baseline research throughout the Ridley, Crum and Darby Watersheds. We are looking to learn more about our constantly changing waterways through a number of different projects. From monthly water chemistry analysis that gives us a snapshot of stream function at the moment that we take our water sample, to insect surveys that can tell us what the stream conditions have been over the course of their lives, we can learn the dynamic and fascinating stories of this underwater realm. If you see someone from the Trust in the field or out in a stream, please do not hesitate to come over and see what they are up to. Our researchers love to teach more about the work that is being done in the streams.
Hang on- How Can Insects Tell Us More About the Water?
From the point of view of an insect living in the stream system, water quality is incredibly important; if there is too much change, they are unable to survive. Different insects have different tolerances to change, and scientists can use this spectrum to estimate the water quality over a period of time. Highly sensitive insects disappear first, followed by less sensitive organisms in more moderately impacted streams, and only the most tolerant are left in very stressed and impacted systems. When compared to taking water samples, which provide information about the quality of the water at the moment a sample is taken; insects can give insight into water quality over a longer period of time. Insects can live for several years in a stream before leaving to turn into an adult, so if there were fluctuations in water quality that remove sensitive insects from the food web, it will be apparent several months to a year after the event.
There are a wide variety of factors that impact the lives of the organisms in a stream, including water temperature, nutrient availability and flow. Water temperature can be altered by a number of variables including the amount of silt suspended in the water, direct sunlight and the temperature of the runoff that is entering the waterway; all issues that are rooted in land use in the watershed area. In this part of the world, many organisms prefer cold water that is packed with oxygen, so it is important to keep the sediment and contamination entering the stream to a minimum!
Even household chemicals that are used on a regular basis can change how healthy a stream is. Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and some cleaners can be toxic to many forms of aquatic life at low concentrations. Fertilizers in particular have been causing widespread changes to the streams in the Delaware River Watershed. Excess fertilizer can cause rapid algae growth that can have a long lasting and negative impact on the function of the entire ecosystem.
What is a Watershed?
A watershed is the area an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as a stream or river. The way that the land is used within a watershed directly impacts the quality in the waterways within the catchment basin. Activities such as farming, development and construction, as well as deforestation all can have negative impacts on watershed health.
One of the most prominent threats that our waterways face is the construction of impermeable surface, or surface that does not allow for water to pass through. Impermeable surfaces include pavement, roofs, and lawns. When there is a rain storm over areas with high concentrations of impermeable surfaces, the water hits and quickly runs to drainage ditch and rapidly enters the waterways, carrying contamination and increasing in temperature as it runs over hot pavement.
In a more natural system, the rain would be absorbed into the soil and plants and would slowly enter the stream system. The slower water would carry less debris and be a cooler temperature, making better habitat for the fish and bugs that live there. The impact of impervious surfaces can be corrected to a degree by planting trees along the edge of the waterway. Trees on the banks are called a riparian buffer. Stretches of stream that do not have riparian buffer are usually of much lower quality and can negatively impact the water quality of an entire stream or river. Riparian trees help to stabilize the bank of the stream as well as slow runoff, provide shade, and lower water temperature thereby increasing the overall water quality.
The Willistown area is very fortunate to not have a dense concentration of impermeable surfaces due in large part to the 40 years of land preservation efforts of Willistown Conservation Trust. Without the protection from development, the headwaters of the Ridley, Crum and Darby Creeks would not be in the shape that they are today.
How can I help?
- Be aware of pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use. The chemicals that are used to maintain lawns are toxic in freshwater ecosystems. Try to decrease use of chemicals on your lawn. Often, we use more than we need- pay attention to directions on containers and be aware if there are recommendations against using in riparian (near a stream) areas.
- Plant native plants. Short mown grass in the lawn may look appealing, but it is an impervious surface due to the dense root systems of grass. Consider transforming a portion of the lawn into a meadow garden or a rain garden. Native plants have deeper roots which allow for more effective water permeation into the soil, thus lower runoff. They are also very low maintenance, beneficial for pollinators, and a beautiful addition to any home.
- Let the grass grow a little longer and mulch the clippings to reduce the need for fertilizers. The rule of thumb is the roots are half as deep as the grass blades are long, so letting your grass grow to three inches means your roots are one and a half inches deep. Deeper roots allow for more water to permeate into the soil and less to turn into runoff that will enter our waterways.
- Pay attention to water and energy use. Turn off faucets when brushing your teeth or washing dishes, take shorter showers and make sure to fix any leaking faucets. The average American household consumes about 350 gallons of water each day (riverkeeper.org)