Tookany/Tacony-Frankford: Water connects us
| November 27, 2023
The Tookany/Tacony-Frankford waterways are a big name for what is really a rather small stream or two, or three, or more. Actually, much more.
They are tucked in tight, mostly to the northeast and northwest of Philadelphia, and some of them are in the city itself.
The first two names are different ways to anglicize the original Lenape name for the area, which translates to “woods” or “wilderness.”
The first, Tookany, is for the parts of this 30-square-mile watershed that aren’t in Philly. It becomes the Tacony once it’s in the city.
And those waters become the Frankford Creek when it joins the historic Wingohocking Creek at I Street and Ramona Avenue by the Juniata Golf Course in Philadelphia. (Remember the Wingohocking Creek; we’ll come across that later.)
The Frankford Creek flows into the Delaware River just south of the Betsy Ross Bridge.
And its connection to the Delaware is just one of the reasons we’re looking closely at these streams — and at their guardian angel, the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership.
The first words you see when you go to its website just about sums up much of why we all do what we do — and care about our rivers and stream: Water connects us.
Those puddles that collect after a rainstorm may not seem like much, but that rainwater scours all the surfaces it comes in contact with, from parking lots to roofs, even to “soft” surfaces like woods and parks, and empties all that into nearby streams.
That’s what the word watershed means — all the rain that falls in a certain place is gathered to the streams that flow there.
When the storms are severe enough, as they might be as we live through the era of climate change, floods can result.
On the road
I took a tour with the TTF’s chief cheerleader, Juliet Slavet, also known as its executive director, who is, despite 12 years in the role, endlessly excited about solutions to the various problems that affect this watershed.
In almost every case, the solution involves a partnership with one or more people and organizations on the ground as well as funders who support the work.
A big partner for several of the projects Slavet introduced me to is the William Penn Foundation.
Its action-oriented idea was the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, which selected some of the essential subwatersheds in the larger Delaware River watershed to explore what advocacy groups already connected to those watersheds could do to improve water quality in their neck of the woods. And, in turn, improve the water quality for the Delaware River as a whole.
First up, a visit to the Abington Friends School, in Jenkintown in Montgomery County.
The tiny Jenkintown Creek on the property is one of many headwaters for the TTF watershed and even before its involvement with TTF, the stream has been used as a teaching tool for all level of students.
As Scott Sowers, a biology teacher, explained, the students take jars of stream water — which they have nicknamed “jarrariums” — back to the classroom so they can explore various aquatic critters.
The creek was just a dip in a level grassy field (headwaters are usually tiny) before the first project that TTF worked on. Nothing happens with these projects without TTF building a relationship with the people/organization that owns the land.
That was pretty easy in this case, given that Slavet’s kids went to the school.
And it wasn’t just the school administration that was involved in the work. Trees were planted along the banks, and students worked alongside TTF. Other partners included students from Drexel and Temple Universities.
Keeping things cool and shady
Shade is important for any river or stream to keep the waters cool for the critters who live there. It’s also important to have what are called riparian buffers: planting that holds the side of a waterway in place, so those banks are not worn away by erosion — pulling dirt into the water.
The mastermind for many of the projects is Susan Harris, a conservation specialist hired by TTF as a consultant. Her business is Cerulean, LLC
As we walk and talk, she remembers fondly that the kids invented a song to sing about riparian buffers. That’s pretty cool!
Other TTF-inspired projects happened at the school.
On the driveway that slopes near the creek, there’s a drainage strip across the road to capture the rainwater that comes down that driveway, and coaxes the rainwater toward the rain garden — another project — where it can seep into the ground and not just rush into the creek.
While there, we met Dave Bell, one of TTF’s 30 streamkeepers.
Bell, with his partner, Rebecca Schultz, monitor the Jenkintown at the spot it meets the Tookany.
Ryan Newman, TTF’s upstream conservation leader is the staffer overseeing the streamkeepers and also the one who keeps an eye on completed projects and helps TTF’s on-the-ground partners keep them functioning. The natural world is always busy rearranging the “furniture” we humans put carefully in place.
Next stop, not on a stream but near one (as nearly all this watershed is) is the Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. Another synagogue, Congregation Adath Jeshurun, was the subject of recent story in Delaware Currents.
And here it was congregants who knew about TTF’s work in the watershed who approached their executive director, Brian Rissinger, about fixing the problem of parking lot flooding that happened during heavy rains.
As Rissinger recounts the story, the very day that a representative group from the temple was going to meet people from TTF, it had rained and there was a considerable puddle they had to wade through, thus confirming the need for the work.
That site is now another rain garden. The temple gave up 30 parking spaces to make it happen. That’s a big deal for any religious institution because parking for congregants is important to make it easier for members to come to services.
But another project with the temple is invisible to the eye: The roof of the temple is a flat surface, and creates more excess rain water.
So, under Harris’s watchful eye, a large rectangular hole was dug on the property to collect that rainwater, called subsurface storage. It’s still there, underground, doing its job, with a green lawn on top.
On the very next day after our visit, a third project, this one another rain garden, was getting started.
Channeling water in the best way possible
Then, we’re off to another project: the park that’s part of the Charles D. Conklin, Jr., pool facility in Cheltenham.
Towards the back of the facility, there’s a so-far-unnamed creek that until Cheltenham Township and TTF worked on it was a straight channel from one end of the park area to the other — and a hard channel at that, consisting of connected concrete half circles.
Once upon a time, getting water from here to there as fast as possible was the aim. We’ve learned a lot about how just shifting those fast waters downstream is likely to cause further havoc.
So now the stream does a meander through a newly established rain garden. And here, too, there needed to be buy-in. The community that uses this public facility was concerned that “losing” the green lawn would mean less picnicking and less grass for kids to play on.
But the rain garden, in fact, creates a safe space to explore and there’s still enough lawn to host birthday parties.
And since nothing on this scale happens without financial support, in addition to the William Penn Foundation, hats are off to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Growing Greener; Pennsylvania Department of Community Economic Development’s Waterside Restoration and Protection Program; National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and Cheltenham Township.
Now in our tour of this watershed, we move from restoration projects to a place-based project, which essentially means the work that TTF does on the Tacony Creek Park with the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to make this 300-acre linear park along the Frankford Creek a natural oasis surrounded by the city of Philadelphia.
The park is, according to TTF’s website, “a critical community asset for Olney, Lawncrest, Feltonville, Juniata Park, and Frankford neighbors as well as all Philadelphia residents.”
And luckily, we are joined here by an avid park booster and a fan of his hometown, Olney: Marquise Lindsey-Bradley.
He’s also a member of the Olney Culture Lab, one local piece of a city-wide project supported by Culture Works Greater Philadelphia. The Olney Culture Lab promotes culture as a catalyst for community development and social change.
Lindsey-Bradley is proud of his community and, with the Culture Lab, partners with TTF to help area residents make good use of the park.
The park is certainly precious, but also underused. Unfortunately, past practices may have worked to make residents — largely people of color — of those nearby communities feel less than welcome at their own park.
It is a pattern that is repeated in big and little ways with access to environmental treasures of any size, from this city park to our national parks.
And that underuse, in turn, creates another problem: Few people want to be the only person on a trail.
So, TTF works with both the Olney Culture Lab and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department (with support from the Philadelphia Water Department) to develop programs that will welcome residents and help them enjoy the park.
There are sponsored walks, and an invited artist who came to paint on the path. There are signposts that celebrate a local person of cultural status so that people can see themselves in the park.
But under-use isn’t the only problem.
Combined sewer overflows
Some of the older areas of Philadelphia are part of the city’s long-ago answer to flooding in people’s backyards: a combined sewer overflow system.
That system allows excess water — and partly treated sewage — from heavy rains that exceed the capacity of the city’s wastewater treatment plants to be carried off through miles of underground tunnels to empty into creeks like Frankford.
In fact, the largest of those is where the now-underground Wingohocking Creek empties into the Frankford at what is the largest overflow in the system, called T14.
It’s really mammoth.
We stood on the banks of the stream about 30 feet above it, and Slavet explained that during a heavy downpour that stream would be up to where we stood. T14 measures 24 feet at its widest. She also said that at this one overflow site, water can rush out equal to volume of the Schuykill River.
We visited in November. In the summer, the smell is quite off-putting.
The reason it’s called T14 is that there 13 other smaller overflow sites along the Frankford Creek.
The challenge then is twofold: encourage people to come and recreate in the park but also make sure they know not to swim in its waters. TTF and PWD, are honest about the well-known problem. Residents often aren’t aware of the problem.
TTF put up signs — in English and Spanish — that advise against swimming, especially after heavy rains.
Celebrating Earth Day
We travel a little farther in the park to the site where TTF holds its Earth Day celebration, called Birds of a Feather.
It’s a cavernous space under the Whitaker Avenue overpass in Feltonville.
It’s the site of several murals commissioned by TTF to brighten up what might be a depressing part of the park.
And, behind the scenes, there’s always planning afoot to improve projects already completed and developing new projects — and finding the funding for them.
Like this one: a planned Tacony Creek Park trail that will eventually connect to a Frankford Creek Greenway all the way to the Delaware.
There’s always more.