Cleanest streams in Northeastern Pennsylvania bring $3 billion in benefits, study finds
A report quantifies the ecological and economic value of specially protected streams, which are concentrated in the Poconos

| August 30, 2022

Tank Creek
Tank Creek in Monroe County, Pa., which is in the Delaware River watershed, is a stream classified as "exceptional value," the state's highest water quality designation.

Northeastern Pennsylvania’s “exceptional value” and “high quality” streams – the highest designations for the state’s most pristine waterways – are associated with nearly $3 billion worth of economic benefits to communities, businesses and land owners, according to a recent report sponsored by clean water supporters.

The study also countered a popular narrative that environmental protections and economic development are incompatible. The report, which explored the benefits to Delaware River watershed counties of Carbon, Monroe, Northampton, Pike and Wayne Counties, and parts of Lackawanna and Luzerne, found that such water protections enhance – not hinder – the regional economy.

Of 86,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania, only 2 percent are clean enough to earn the top designation as exceptional value, many of which are tributaries to the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. Of the specially protected waterways, 80 percent are concentrated in the Poconos. Among them: Devil’s Hole, Paradise, Swiftwater, Tank and Tunkhannock.

The report, which was prepared by Key-Log Economics, an ecological economic research group, arrived at the multi-billion-dollar sum by calculating the value that the streams bring to recreational spending and tourism, land values and the environment.

Ecological benefits save money

The biggest benefit the report identified – worth $2 billion – was linked to stream and riparian protections that improve water quality.

That figure does not represent actual revenue generated but rather costs saved by preventing undue stress on water treatment plants and blunting the potential damage caused by flooding, erosion and sedimentation.

The report, citing other academic studies, explained that riparian buffers trap pollutants and sediments that might otherwise reach the streams and make them less valuable for recreation or drinking water sources.

“Natural land adjacent to waterways – such as forest, grassland, shrub and wetlands – allow for a cascade of benefits from improved ecosystem service delivery downstream, including water filtration, nutrient retention and sediment control,” said the report, which was prepared for Our Pocono Waters, a clean-water advocacy group, in conjunction with PennFuture.

Riparian buffers absorb carbon dioxide, which help to regulate the climate globally. Collectively, the buffers provide roughly $1.5 billion in carbon sequestration benefits per year, the report said. Those benefits extend globally, and not necessarily narrowly to Northeastern Pennsylvania, Anna Perry, one of the report’s authors, said.

However, other benefits, such as the annual savings for nutrient retention services ($553.5 million) have more local implications.

In that case, the riparian buffers do work that municipal water treatment systems otherwise would have to, resulting in avoided costs worth millions, said Spencer Phillips, another study author.

“The cleaner the water is going to the municipal water system, the less work they have to do in the processing with chemicals and so forth,” he said.

Though the findings of nearly $3 billion in benefits might sound incredible, the study’s authors said they drew on a review of other literature about the benefits of specially protected streams and riparian buffers, as well as federal data and statistical modeling.

Researchers also used the Pennsylvania Wilds – a contiguous region with a similarly high concentration of specially protected streams – as a control to compare their findings in the Poconos. Further, they said they took steps to be conservative in their estimates.

Compatible with economic growth

Better to preserve the exceptional value and high quality streams than to let them degrade, said Donna Kohut, campaign manager of Our Pocono Waters. She noted that one-third of the streams in Pennsylvania are already so polluted that they fail to meet federal clean water standards.

And in the Poconos, projects that are under way or planned – such as a large solar farm in Pocono Township and a warehouse in Coolbaugh Township – could threaten specially protected streams. Allowing the health of those waterways to backslide would not only damage ecosystems but also mean a huge investment of time and money to restore them.

“Let’s keep the good stuff good,” she said, adding that the premise that you can’t have environmental protections along with a robust economy was a “false choice.”

“You can have both but you just have to be more thoughtful about” where development is sited and what steps can be taken to prevent environmental harm.

The report found “statistically significant relationships between stream designation and the economic indicators are positive, not negative.”

“Protecting natural amenities like stream quality can easily coexist with strong economic performance,” it said. “All totaled, there is little cause for concern that enhanced stream protection will harm the Poconos region economy, and there is important evidence that such protection actually improves the region’s economy.”

The study’s authors theorized that any negative effects related to restrictions on land use were offset by improved water quality and aesthetics, both of which are linked to increased property values. Land with riparian buffers had 26 percent higher property values than those without.

“Other studies do indicate that people prefer – and are willing to pay more for – homes that are closer to protected streams,” the report said.

Tourism and recreational spending

The report also found a link between higher water quality and increased visitor spending.

The specially protected streams that lure anglers, hunters, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts could increase outdoor recreation spending by 2 to 8 percent, generating as much as $982 million in sales for the region per year.

Potential increases in visitor spending could produce as many as 7,380 new jobs, resulting in up to $246 million in wage increases, the report said.

Todd Burns, the secretary of the Broadhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said that based on his decades of fishing in the Poconos, he was unsurprised by the findings. He said when he comes to the area, he tops off his gas tank, eats at local restaurants and shops at outfitters for things he needs, forgot or wants.

“Many of my fellow anglers do the same things and over the course of a season, that adds up — a lot,” Burns said.

Sierra Fogal, the operations manager and co-owner of Pocono Whitewater and Skirmish in Jim Thorpe, noted at a news conference that the Lehigh River in the late 1800s and early 1900s was used to transport coal and helped fueled the industrial revolution.

“Back then, it was used as a transportation tool for a booming industry,” she said. “Today, it is the industry.”

The river drives tens of millions of dollars in economic impact because of the businesses that depends on it, such as liveries, outfitters, hotels and restaurants.

“If the waterways feeding the Lehigh and the Lehigh itself are not protected, I risk losing my family business,” she said. “And, as a region, we risk losing this economic driver and outdoor oasis to more warehouses.”

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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