WISSAHICKON -- Although three suburban Philadelphia homeowners live in three different watersheds: Pennypack, Tookany/Tacony-Frankford and Wissahickon, they all share a common concern: how to manage water on their property and reduce stormwater pollution in local waterways. Alma Taylor, Anne Lawler and Fran Ceneviva all participated in the grant-funded Stream Smart Stormwater House Calls program due to water runoff concerns on their properties and in hopes to inspire other homeowners.

How Stream Smart works

Stream Smart Stormwater House Calls, a collaborative initiative offered in four watersheds located in the Philadelphia suburbs, was introduced to improve stormwater management on private properties in densely urbanized watersheds where most of the land is occupied by homes.

Through property audits conducted by local watershed representatives, the Stream Smart program identifies changes that homeowners can make to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff that leaves their properties. Representatives from Wissahickon Trails, formerly Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association, Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, and the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership conduct the audits. A few weeks after the audit, homeowners receive a detailed written report of the recommended changes they can make.

Stream Smart is available in the three watersheds as well as in the Darby Creek Watershed. Each organization acquired grant money to subsidize the installation of stormwater best management practices (BMPs) such as rain barrels, flow through planters, rain gardens and bioswales. The funding is used to purchase supplies and materials and to hire contractors to install the BMPs. Volunteers are also deployed to help with the digging and planting. Homeowners pay a portion of project implementation costs and are responsible for long term maintenance.

The problem with stormwater runoff

Stormwater runoff is any water that travels across property rather than seeping into the ground. It can pick up harmful chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, motor oil from cars, pet waste, and other toxic substances that then can runoff into local creeks and into waterways used for drinking water.

In the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed, the Jenkintown Creek flows through Taylor’s yard.

“The longer I’ve lived here, the more and more water I see on my property after rainstorms,” said Taylor who has lived in her Montgomery County home for 19 years.

She was concerned about flooding and erosion on her property as well as the creek’s vitality.

“The beautiful ducks aren’t in the creek anymore,” said Taylor, who is glad the county is trying to save its creeks. The creeks run into the Delaware River, which provides drinking water for 15 million people in Philadelphia, New York City, Trenton, Wilmington and cities in between.

“I am always looking for ways to preserve green spaces and water,” said Taylor, which is why she became interested in the Stream Smart program. “If there is a way to prevent flooding and erosion, I want to help.”

Similar to Taylor, Fran Ceneviva, manager of Fulmor Heights Home Ownership Association, was also concerned about erosion in the Pennypack Watershed. An unnamed tributary in Upper Moreland Township faces high water after storms, erosion and pollution. Born and raised in Fulmor Heights, Ceneviva was interested in Stream Smart to help come up with a solution.

“With all the excessive storms bringing erosion and pollution, I wanted to try to fix it,” he said.

The excessive rain was also impacting Anne Lawler’s backyard in Abington, which is part of the Wissahickon Watershed. Lawler’s yard is in a 100-year flood-plain zone, meaning that her backyard, and sometimes her basement, face flooding. All summer, the ground in Lawler’s backyard was saturated with stormwater. Her kids couldn’t play in the backyard and Lawler’s family couldn’t enjoy it at all.

“There was a whole backyard that I wasn’t using,” she said.

Lawler has always been interested in learning about her neighborhood and cleaning up the nearby creek, a Sandy Run tributary. She was excited to learn about Stream Smart through emails and fliers and take steps to reduce the flooding.

Stream Smart representatives offer solutions

Luckily for all three participants, Stream Smart assessments provided them much needed answers to their stormwater dilemmas.

During the audits, which typically take between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on how much property there is to assess, representatives analyzed where the water was coming onto their properties and where it was going, and also looked at the downspouts, foundations and grading. Each homeowner then received customized recommendations based on their unique situations.

“Jennifer and Lindsay walked around my property with me and automatically began suggesting where to put plants and rain barrels,” said Lawler.

Home-based solutions

From rethinking landscaping practices to creating a rain garden or utilizing rain barrels, Stream Smart representatives offer numerous solutions to address stormwater concerns. The audit is free, and the participants decide what measures they would like to implement on their properties with the help of contractors and volunteers.

Fall is the best time to plant and when many of the first Stream Smart House Call projects took place. In Taylor’s yard, the Tookany/Tacony Frankford Watershed Partnership planted a rain garden that captures, cleans and absorbs stormwater runoff. Volunteers planted native plants such as blue flag iris, aromatic aster, coral bells, royal fern, coneflowers and many others.

Native plants do not require fertilizer and help filter pollutants. They also attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators to the garden, and that has certainty been the case with Taylor’s rain garden.

“I’ve never seen so many birds in my yard,” said Taylor. “They were playing, taking baths, having a great day.”

To decrease erosion, native trees, including flowering dogwood, red bud, sweet bay magnolia, swamp oak, arrow wood and black choke berry, were planted around the creek. Taylor also plans to add a rain barrel to her property, and is overall, very happy with how all the planting turned out.

“It’s so pretty,” she said. “The rain garden and trees will help beautify and purify the creek.”

Lawler also has a rain garden in her yard thanks to the landscaping service NativeScapes. Lawler contributed 25% of the payment and the rest of the landscaping was paid for with grant funding from Wissahickon Trails.

Now when it rains, water goes directly to the rain garden, helping to reduce flooding on her Abington property. Lawler is also happy that the project is not only benefitting the future of her home and her children, but also her neighbors and the nearby creek.

As for Upper Moreland Township, The Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust has water monitors in the unnamed tributary to measure the flow. This summer, they will distribute five or six rain barrels to the Fulmor Heights HOA, and another five or six to the surrounding area. The Pennypack Trust also hopes to build a rain garden with members in the Fulmor Heights HOA’s social club.

Closing the education gap

While the program is successful for participants, there is an education gap when it comes to the public’s knowledge on stormwater pollution. Taylor said many of her neighbors saw the planting in her yard taking place and were interested in learning more.

“I hope more neighbors get involved and get the creek cleaned up,” said Taylor.

A sign that reads “My home is Storm Strong!” sparks up a lot of conversation in Lawler’s yard. Lawler has informed many neighbors who pass by on the public walkway, behind her backyard and near the creek, about Stream Smart and her rain garden.

The homeowners appreciated the excellent information they received from the Stream Smart program and are glad there is a program like this available to them. Lawler praises how knowledgeable and informed the Stream Smart representatives were.

“I feel so lucky to be chosen for this experience and fortunate to work with these great people,” she said.

Likewise, the organizations spearheading Stream Smart are happy to have the ear of concerned homeowners.

“The Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Team is so impressed with the community's enthusiasm and commitment to clean water. Although participating homeowners had varying levels of understanding about the impact of stormwater runoff and possible solutions, all were willing to listen, learn more and embrace the importance of how their actions can improve their local creek. I encourage our watershed community residents to take the first step to improving the health of our creeks and rivers,” said Julie Slavet, executive director of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, Inc.

Stream Smart Stormwater House Calls improves water quality in the following watersheds: Darby Creek, Wissahickon, Pennypack and Tookany/Tacony-Frankford. See video here

Visit streamsmarthousecalls.org or call 1-888-683-9992 to apply for more information. 

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