Home Environmental education The Schuylkill is clean but has a PR problem, study finds

The Schuylkill is clean but has a PR problem, study finds


The Schuylkill is clean enough for recreation, like boating or organized swimming events most of the time, but the majority of people consistently think it’s too polluted to enter or approach, according to a new study. by a group of non-profit organizations.

The group and a consultant surveyed water quality along 71 miles of the main stem of the Schuylkill, from Reading to southwest Philadelphia, and interviewed 300 people to understand how the river is viewed.

They found a big disconnect, said Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director of the Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area.

“It’s been kind of a thorny issue for many, many years,” Schaefer said. “And after so many years of pollution, it has a terrible reputation that it no longer deserves.”

His organization has teamed up with Berks Nature in Reading; Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Chester County; and Bartram’s Garden and The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia for the study. New Jersey-based Princeton Hydro compiled a report based on the data. The William Penn Foundation funded the project.

“We try to make the public understand that the term Schuylkill punch no longer applies,” Schaefer said. “And people should look to the river instead of leaving it.”

One of the reasons for the public perception of the river: the visible waste along the banks.

  • The group has installed four monitoring stations along the river to record water temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and conductivity from September 2020 to January 2022.

  • They took samples of E. coli bacteria in dry and wet weather at all four locations.

  • Separately, they sent volunteers to record illegal trash and dumping along the river and got 100 responses, but with a high concentration of those responses around Phoenixville.

  • They surveyed 300 residents of Berks, Chester, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties about their perceptions of the river.

Enterococci coli (E. coli) are bacteria that live in the intestinal tract of animals, including humans. E.coli concentrations were generally safe on dry days “during the swimming season months” but “extremely high” during and after storms in some places, meaning the water was too dirty for humans during those times. Faecal waste enters the Schuylkill and other waterways through failing septic tanks, leaking sewer lines, urban stormwater runoff and combined sewer systems that send untreated waste overflow directly into water during heavy rains. Livestock is another source of E. coli.

READ MORE: Climate change strains 19th-century Philadelphia sewer system

water temperature is a barometer for aquatic life such as trout. Although temperatures have increased downstream of Philadelphia, they are generally in a good range.

Dissolved oxygen is also critical for aquatic life and is aggravated by higher water temperatures. Levels were normal in all locations.

Turbidity is an indicator of water clarity, and high levels can smother some aquatic life. Levels were mostly healthy but increased during the storms. Turbidity was slightly elevated at the Schuylkill River Greenways station in Pottstown and at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.

Conductivity serves as a gauge for salt levels and rise during snowstorms when crews treat the roads. The average conductivity was slightly elevated at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education compared to the other stations, but within a normal range.

Trash can, the most visible sign of pollution, can also be ingested by wildlife or become entangled in it. It enters the river through litter or is washed away by storm drains during storms. Volunteers counted trash within 100 feet of their assigned sites. Most locations upstream of Valley Forge were “optimal” on average, while most locations downstream were “suboptimal” or “marginal”.

READ MORE: EPA dunks giant ‘pool skimmers’ in the Schuylkill to suck up trash — and determine how much plastic trash is in the water

Garbage is a deciding factor for many.

“For better or worse, when people see trash, they tend to think it’s unhealthy, polluted, and dangerous,” said John Jackson, senior researcher at Stroud. “I think in terms of reaching the public, litter is perhaps the pollutant I’m most concerned about. If we can’t make the river beautiful, how can people believe it’s not polluted? »

Indeed, the survey revealed that 56% of people care about the river and most use it for cycling, running or walking along. However, many believe it is not clean enough for recreational activities in the water or for eating fish.

An overwhelming majority, 85%, cited “garbage and rubbish” when asked about the main cause of river contamination.

However, 66% also cited “chemicals and other toxins” as a major or minor issue. The study did not sample for chemicals.

But the public has been concerned in recent years about man-made per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are potentially harmful. The Philadelphia Water Department, which draws drinking water from the Schuylkill, said in its latest water quality report that water sampling in “the city’s rivers and streams” n did not “detected amounts at or above EPA health advisory levels.”

The water utility also operates its Rivercast online service which allows users to see in real time if the river is safe for “activities involving direct or indirect contact” with water.

Although levels of chemicals such as mercury and PCBs in the river are generally low, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has issued a fish consumption advisory for parts of the Schuylkill. The commission says long-lived contaminants that also include chlordane (once used as a pesticide) and mercury can build up in bodies over time from fish.

Thus, he advises limiting the consumption of certain species of fish caught in various river segments to one meal per month to only six meals per year. Or he advises against eating fish altogether depending on where they are caught.

The river is generally safe for swimming, but the activity is illegal in Philadelphia unless it is part of an organized event such as a triathlon. And the water should not be swallowed. The Philadelphia Water Department draws drinking water from the Schuylkill but subjects it to a lengthy cleaning process that includes chlorination to kill bacteria.

Overall, however, Jackson says the river is safe for most activities.

“People feel like there’s a danger there,” he said. “But that’s not supported by what we know about the river… We don’t celebrate improvements.”