How William Penn is Helping 16 Towns Clean Up One Troubled Pennsylvania Creek

The EPA is cracking down on pollution in Wissahickon Creek, and local nonprofits and the William Penn Foundation are providing one example of how towns can unite to clean up troubled waters.

The Wissahickon gets its grimy start at the parking lot of the Montgomery Mall to the north of Philadelphia. It then meanders 24 miles through woods, industrial, agricultural, and residential land, two counties, and 16 municipalities, collecting unwanted additions from each town’s sewer and septic systems, and four wastewater treatment plants before feeding into the Schuykill River. 

As a result, the Wissahickon has been deemed “impaired” by the EPA, overloaded with phosphorous and other pollutants that disrupt ecosystems, which is a problem considering it’s popular for fishing and swimming, and happens to supply 10 percent of Philadelphia’s drinking water. 

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This brand of watershed pollution—resulting from a mix of urban and industrial stormwater runoff, agricultural fertilizer, and aging infrastructure—is a common problem for water systems on the East Coast and the Midwest. As governments respond to such threats to clean water, and EPA mandates to do so, we’re seeing more foundations and nonprofits trying to further solutions. 

One such example is an effort—advocated for by a local nonprofit, and backed with $1.2 million from William Penn Foundation—to link up the several neighboring town governments in a joint cleanup effort. 

William Penn is a major regional backer of freshwater systems, with one program giving millions to protect the Delaware River watershed through research, organizing, and support for infrastructure improvements. 

Related: William Penn Ramps Up Its Fight To Protect the Delaware Watershed

In the past several months, the 16 governments that feed into the creek’s watershed have been grappling with how to meet stormwater runoff regulations from the EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection. One impediment has been the fact that there are just so many players. The towns each have their own priorities and budgets, and if one town fails, it could stymie the whole cleanup.

So the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association has been making the rounds encouraging an alternate plan, and reframing it as a positive step for the region—a chance to “own” the process. Instead of each municipality putting forth its own plan for reducing phosphorous in its share of the watershed, they would instead share legal and engineering costs, and draw advice from national and regional experts to come up with one plan.

The William Penn Foundation provides additional incentive to join and helps out with the burden on cities through a $1.2 million grant that is covering the cost of the planning process, water testing, modeling, and analysis as the partnership creates its plan.

It’s not your typical EPA process, but the approach is catching on, and can make things more efficient and less expensive for communities as they take steps like educating the public, and planting trees and gardens to form a barrier to excess nutrients. 

Many cities and towns have emerged as champions for the environment in recent years, but getting there can be a real challenge for civil servants facing tough budget constraints and political realities. 

Related: For Green Giving, 2015 Was the Year of the City

While this particular Penn grant is merely providing planning support, it’s an example of how the right injection of funds and expertise can sort of grease the wheels for jammed up local communities. 

Assuming it plays out well, it’s a good example of how a funder can assist in moving a narrative of conflict (environmentalists vs. cities; cities vs. the feds; cities vs. other cities) into one of cooperation.