Middle Delaware basin’s water quality is better than many
Pocono streams face stress from development
| May 18, 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?
Water quality in the Middle Delaware basin, which is made up of parts of Monroe and Pike Counties in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, benefits from undisturbed forested areas, open spaces and less-intense land uses.
Though the Poconos are no stranger to the pressures of urbanization, the Middle Delaware basin comparatively does not suffer from the same scale of water quality degradation as other basins, according to a recent Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection report that assessed the health of streams in the state.
The percentage of stream miles labeled as impaired in Monroe County (10 percent) and Pike County (24 percent) were lower than many other counties that make up the Delaware River watershed in Pennsylvania, according to the report.
The Middle Delaware basin benefits from a scattered, dispersed population, forested areas, a lack of a heavy reliance on agriculture and lighter industrial users, such as the drug-maker Sanofi, which has a large facility in Swiftwater in Pocono Township, said Paul B. Wilson, director of the Environmental Science Program at East Stroudsburg University.
As for what stressors the basin faces, Wilson said, “The simplest word I would say is development.”
Commercial and housing growth
can have significant impacts on the health of local water quality.
“When people ask, ‘Where do you see the most disruptions in the watershed?’, just look at the zoning map,” Jackson said. “It seems like every time I drive to work, I see more of these neon flags for development.”
Indeed, Jackson’s organization has sounded the alarm about a solar farm planned in Pocono Township that the BWA says seeks to clearcut more than 450 acres of pristine forests near Pocono Manor.
“The developer is seeking approval to then build 15 stormwater detention basins,” the association said. “The basins are designed to fail simultaneously during a very heavy rainstorm.”
The BWA warned that the project could pose a threat of severe flooding and sedimentation to a stream designated as “Exceptional Value” under Pennsylvania’s system.
Supersized warehouses and distribution centers, the likes of which already dot the Lehigh Valley and that environmental activists say are associated with degradation of water quality in the basin there, are proposed for some Monroe County townships.
“The desire to have stuff the next day has really driven the warehouse boom,” Wilson said, adding that the buildings can come together very quickly. “Putting up warehouses is almost a Lego kit now.”
The impervious surfaces that come with parking lots and buildings can usher in increased stormwater runoff, which can harm streams, especially as climate change brings more intense and frequent storms.
Massive warehouses bring with them hundreds of truck trips, which can mean spills, diesel exhaust, road salt and volatile organic compounds being released into the ecosystem, Jackson said.
Kristina Heaney, the district manager of the Monroe County Conservation District, and David Hooker, a watershed specialist at the district, responded to questions about the DEP report by email.
They noted: “Some of the most significantly impacted areas within the basin are in the Pocono Creek watershed. Undersized stormwater infrastructure, impervious development within floodplains and floodways, and upstream erosion have triggered downstream flooding, sediment deposition and turbidity issues. The more we manipulate streams and alter their natural course, the more reactive they become downstream.”
And then there are the pressures of residential development. Wilson said that interest in moving to the Poconos grew during the pandemic but it’s unclear whether that demand will remain high.
Being as close as the region is to New York City and Northern New Jersey, “it does not take a significant percentage of the population to move westward to have a significant impact here.”
Heaney and Hooker of the Monroe County Conservation District agreed.
“Monroe County’s proximity to metropolitan areas and easy access to major transportation corridors create significant opportunity for commercial and residential development,” they wrote in an email. “Increased stormwater runoff and sediment pollution from development near our waterways is the primary threat” to the basin, they said.
Wilson said the public has been energized to help do what’s necessary to protect streams.
Those efforts are coming from not just conservancies and preservationist groups, but citizens, business owners and hunting and fishing clubs, which have a vested interest in water quality because it is one of the things that attracted their members to the area in first place.
“The cool thing is there are a number of organizations that are working together to help protect what we have here,” he said.
He pointed to the addition of the former Cherry Valley Golf Course to the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge as a “conservation win.”
Cherry Creek runs along the lower border of the Middle Delaware basin. In 2017, the Nature Conservancy purchased the 193-acre golf course, which parallels a section of the creek.
“After purchasing the parcel, they transferred ownership to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to incorporate it into the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge,” Heaney and Hooker wrote. “USFWS has since converted approximately 49 acres of the golf course to meadows filled with warm season grasses and pollinator-friendly species. East Stroudsburg University has been monitoring water quality in that reach of Cherry Creek and has already started to see an improvement in the health of the macroinvertebrate community.”
Michael Mele contributed reporting.