Brandywine Creek
In Chester County, Pa., a total of 25 miles of an unnamed tributary to the East Branch of Brandywine Creek and the East Branch itself were found to be contaminated by pathogens. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

Brandywine-Christina watershed faces population boom
Fast-growing Chester County could stress streams even more

| May 11, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories exploring water quality in the nine basins in Pennsylvania that are part of the larger Delaware River watershed. How clean are your waterways, Pennsylvania?

A drive just outside the ChesLen Preserve southeast of Coatesville, Pa., takes you on windy narrow roads that hug the West Branch of the Brandywine Creek. 

The 1,282-acre preserve advertises itself as the largest privately owned nature preserve open to the public in Chester County. 

“Miles of marked hiking trails lead visitors through shady woodlands, flower-filled meadows, fields of corn and soybeans, and stream valleys,” its website boasts.

Not far away from this picturesque setting is the East Branch of the Brandywine, sections of which have much more troubled waters than its west branch cousin. A recent Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection report found parts of the east branch to be so badly polluted as to fall short of Clean Water Act standards.

The Brandywine Creek is one of many streams in the larger Brandywine-Christina basin, one of nine basins in Pennsylvania that make up the larger Delaware River watershed, which in turn, is fed by waterways from four states: Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Sign on ChesLen Preserve
The 1,282-acre preserve advertises itself as the largest privately owned nature preserve open to the public in Chester County, Pa. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

Las Vegas rules do not apply: What happens in those four states does not stay there. Instead, the quality of water in the basins ultimately shape the condition of the Delaware River, which is a drinking water supply for more than 15 million people, home to wildlife, fish and insects, and a source of recreation for anglers, kayakers and canoeists.

Parts of the Brandywine-Christina basin are stressed by pollution or substandard conditions, according to the DEP report, which found 873 miles of streams were impaired for aquatic life, 248 miles were impaired for recreational uses and 192 miles for fish consumption. (Some of the impaired miles can overlap.)

Further, the 2022 report lists 65 miles that had not been previously assessed that were deemed impaired, meaning they failed to meet at least one standard for water quality as outlined in the federal Clean Water Act.

In Chester County, a total of 25 miles of an unnamed tributary to the East Branch of Brandywine Creek and the East Branch itself were found to be contaminated by pathogens. In addition, a 12.6-mile section of another stream, known locally as Valley Run and officially in DEP records as an unnamed tributary to Beaver Creek, was also listed as polluted by pathogens, bacteria that can come from human or animal waste. 

Older, poorly maintained septic systems or failing drain fields can result in surface discharge of relatively untreated waste, said Cory Trego, a water resources planner at the Chester County Water Resources Authority. That waste can be washed into local streams during heavy rainfalls and contribute to elevated bacteria levels. 

While the report said the source of the pollution was unknown, Trego said septic leachate or wastewater treatment effluent were unlikely culprits in the case of the Valley Run contamination.

The pathogens could have come from a combination of factors, such as bacteria tied to higher water temperatures, or naturally occurring contamination from the waste of livestock and wildlife, such as geese or deer, washing into the water.

Report is ‘sobering reminder’ about protection needs

Trego described the DEP report as a “good, sobering reminder” about the steps needed to guard against the effects of development. It’s not simply a handful of impacts that affect the streams’ health but “a death from a thousand cuts,” he said.

A red line gets crossed when more than 10 percent of undisturbed natural areas are turned into impervious surfaces, such as buildings, parking lots and roads. 

“As more development occurs, that will place more stress on the watershed,” he said. And those stresses are expected to increase in years to come, particularly in Chester County, which is one of the fastest-growing counties in Pennsylvania. 

The county, with an estimated 538,000 residents, is projected to gain 146,000 people by 2045, according to the Chester County Planning Commission. That, in turn, could lead to the development of 3,700 acres of new impervious surfaces, or the equivalent of 237 Walmart Supercenters, including parking lots, officials said. 

“All that adds up and it becomes a measurable impact on the landscape and the watershed,” Trego said.

The problem with covered surfaces is that precipitation is unable to percolate through the soil and leaf litter to recharge aquifers, and instead can rush volumes of water into streams. That, in turn, can lead to an “urban cocktail” of road salt, brake dust, fuel and other contaminants, all of which can find their way into the basin, Trego said.

As John Jackson, a senior research scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center, put it: “Whatever you do in your home, in your driveway, or in your yard, or in the street, it ends up in the stream. Whatever you do on the land, it ends up in the water.”

Jackson said there tends to be an assumption that people everywhere will observe sound land management practices that protect waterways and that “things should be fine and dandy.” But without some rules and restrictions, it’s akin to having highways with no speed limits, he said. 

Grant DeCosta, acting co-director and associate director for community services at the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, noted that more than 70 percent of the streams in Chester County were impaired, according to the DEP report.

DeCosta said localities are given permission to pollute but that the amount of pollution is regularly more than what the environment can handle. The trick is finding ways to keep things in balance.

“We’re lucky the environment is resilient but we just need to give it some help,” he said. 

Collaboration is key

Some of that help has come from the William Penn Foundation, which starting in 2014, looked at grant funding to maximize its impact and leverage resources. That led to the creation of “clusters” to help watersheds, including the Brandywine-Christina, which operate under the umbrella of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative

The initiative collaborates with more than 50 organizations to pursue land preservation and restoration work to achieve “significant, durable water quality improvements,” according to the DRWI website. More than $100 million so far has been dedicated to this mission. 

In the Brandywine-Christina, projects have included working with farmers on best practices, improving riparian buffers and stormwater management and promoting conservation easements that allow farmers to own and use the land but in accordance with a plan that is beneficial to the streams.

Other improvements include putting up fencing to prevent livestock from roaming freely into streams, where manure can pollute the waterways, and planting trees to help slow bank erosion, shade the water and in turn, lower its temperature.

Brian Winslow, watershed conservation director at the Brandywine Red Clay Alliance,

noted that more investment is needed for water quality improvements.

“There’s always more to do,” he said. “We just need the funding.”

Reason for hope
While the DEP report can seem to paint a picture of the glass of water (quality) being half empty, others, looking back over the decades, see reasons for optimism.

Jackson, of the Stroud Water Research Center, noted that the U.S. Geological Survey and the Chester County Water Resources Authority have long been tracking the health of local streams and the data show that, overall, conditions are vastly better than they were decades ago.

“The snapshots are pretty consistent,” Jackson said. “On the bigger scale of this landscape, we have some beautiful creeks here.”

Overall, Jackson said he’d assign a grade of “fair” to the quality of the streams in the basin. 

“We have some good streams,” he said. “We have some bad streams and a whole lot in between.”

Trego said that a stream might be perceived as diminished because of its impaired rating for one standard or another but that does not mean the waterway lacks exceptional value for other uses. 

Looking back to what the streams were like 50 years ago, they are markedly improved, he said. He credited activists and advocates for those gains.

“We would be in a much worse spot if we did not have those organizations and residents involved in ensuring that these streams are protected for future generations,” Trego said.

Michael Mele contributed reporting.

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

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