Pennsylvania Legacies #191: Pennsylvania’s Endangered Rivers

Paddling the muddy Lehigh River after a storm

Of America’s ten most endangered waterways, as ranked by the group American Rivers, two can be found in Pennsylvania. While the problems they face are very different, the Ohio and Lehigh rivers both illustrate how intimately connected water issues are with human activity and a changing climate — not just in the northeastern U.S., but nationwide.



Josh Raulerson (00:01):

It’s Friday, May 12th, 2023. And from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, this is the Pennsylvania Legacies podcast. I’m Josh Raulerson. Every year, American Rivers, a national nonprofit advocating for clean water and stream health, releases its list of America’s 10 most endangered waterways.

In 2023, Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the only state that’s home to not one, but two of the top 10 most endangered rivers, and is the only northeastern state to appear on the list. In the number-two spot is the Ohio River, which begins in Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. The Ohio forms the backbone of a major industrial corridor and a watershed with a population in the millions. That includes the town of East Palestine, Ohio, where a Norfolk Southern train loaded with toxic chemicals infamously derailed in February, spilling some of its contents into local waterways. On the other end of Pennsylvania is the Lehigh River, which also played an important role in the state’s industrial history, although it’s better known these days for its trout streams, mountain views, and whitewater rapids. The Lehigh’s number seven ranking reflects massive upstream development across northeast PA, where sprawling distribution and warehousing facilities have sprung up in recent years, bringing thousands of acres of impermeable surface to the watershed.

Between the two of them, the Ohio and Lehigh Rivers represent much of what’s wrong with rivers and streams in this part of the country. But they’re on American Rivers’ list because they also present enticing opportunities to make things better. Today we’re going to explore both the problems and some of the possible solutions in conversation with Heather Taylor-Miesle of American Rivers, and with Donna Kohut, a Lehigh Valley resident, and Delaware River Basin Campaign manager for PennFuture. Donna, Heather, welcome to Pennsylvania Legacies. Thanks for being here.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (01:54):

Of course.

Donna Kohut (01:56):

Thanks for having us.

Josh Raulerson (01:57):

Heather, could we start with just an introduction to American Rivers? Talk a bit about your mission, your activities, and where the most Endangered Rivers program, you know, fits into the big picture for you.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (02:06):

Absolutely. Well, American Rivers is a 50 year old organization. Our motto is, life depends on rivers. That’s because we absolutely believe it does, whether that’s people or our ecosystem, it all starts with our rivers. We’ve been putting out a report called Most Endangered Rivers for 38 of our 50 years and really trying to use it to create an awareness of where there’s not just a challenge with rivers, but also a really big opportunity after that river. Those, those lists are announced. We follow it up not just in those places, but all over the country with tools. So we specialize in river restoration and river protection, and so we might be cleaning up a river, we might be removing a dam, we might be working with a local community to do floodplain control or something like that. It just depends. We apply the tool that that river needs because every one of ’em is dynamic.

Josh Raulerson (03:02):

I’m glad you mentioned the opportunities piece of it because I was hoping you could talk a bit about you know, how this program works and the criteria you use, because it’s not simply “these are the 10 rivers in the worst shape.” It’s also “these are situations that present some opportunities” as well.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (03:16):

Yeah, and I, that’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited about it, right? Because this isn’t just a doom and gloom kind of thing, and in fact, if it were only a doom and gloom thing, you wouldn’t get on the list, right. <Laugh> There’s got to be an immediate opportunity for progress, and that might be some kind of a rulemaking that might be a new coalition that has started, that might be a court decision that is impending, that that could be a hundred different things. But the, the point is, is that we could make progress now, and that is, is I think what makes this different than other like kind of various lists around, because because it, it spurs us all to action because we can make that difference and that, that’s what I find exciting about the entire thing. Okay.

Josh Raulerson (04:06):

Well, we’ll look forward to the, the more cheerful part of this, but let’s start with the doom and gloom, I suppose. And in fact, just to back up a little bit further, when we look at the Ohio River here in western Pennsylvania where I’m located, Heather, could you just give us a little synopsis of, you know, the Ohio River valley, it’s, it’s economic, it’s ecological historical significance to this region. Why it, you know, figures so large in so many people’s lives?

Heather Taylor-Miesle (04:30):

Absolutely. Well, so the Ohio River, which was number two on the Most Endangered Rivers list this year has really built the entire economy of of most of this region. And so not only is it the drinking water source for 5 million people, but you know, its basin impacts 15 different states. And so we’ve got not just the recreation that comes with that but we have a lot of the economic impact, you know, in, in some ways it’s, it’s the very backbone of our economy especially through Appalachia where we see so many goods flow. Of course, it’s also the home of where there’s been a lot of fossil fuel booms. And so not only have we seen those kinds of mining operations and other chemical and manufacturing facilities beyond its borders, but the pollution that comes with that often also has shown up in the past.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (05:31):

We saw that, of course, most recently with the East Palestine operations that were operating near the river. Not, not right on the river, but the reality was whenever thatNorfolk Southern] train derailed and that spill happened, it went in into the water system and of course had to be really people had to be on high alert when it came specifically to that pollution. And so that’s the, that’s scary part of this story, right? Because the reality is that climate change is getting worse, <laugh> and pollution’s going nowhere. And so we have an Ohio River that will be a working river, but we have to start to plan. You know, another river on our list is the Colorado, and that one is not just about drought, a very different kind of issue for them.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (06:32):

It’s not just about drought, but it’s really about mismanagement, right? Like the folks who’ve been in charge have not managed these systems well, not with a balanced approach. We have the opportunity here in the Ohio to do it differently. The Ohio is going to be a working river. It’s going to be something that is a transportation channel. It should be something that is a recreation area. It is going to be the water source for a lot of people. So knowing all of those things, then what can we do now? And so that’s where the opportunity here comes in. We’ve got this amazing coalition that has come together of really like people who typically are not best friends, <laugh>, who are doing something that’s kind of crazy in our country right now. And that is talking to one another, looking at the science, the same science with each other, <laugh> and saying maybe we ought to try to do things differently. And what we’re seeing is this Ohio River Basin Alliance that has come together full of really strange stakeholders who are for the first time making a whole bunch of progress and they’re getting noticed in Congress. And that is where our story, kind of like the whole next part of this, that’s where it begins.

Josh Raulerson (07:44):

It begins a little bit earlier than this year, I think, but certainly that effort’s been galvanized by what happened in East Palestine. I wanted to ask you, was that incident actually a factor in the decision to rank the Ohio so high? Or was it just sort of a timely illustration of concerns you’re already identifying?

Heather Taylor-Miesle (08:00):

Yeah, you know the Ohio River was actually nominated late last year by our partners on the ground west Virginia Rivers and the Ohio Environmental Councils. So this one made the list I believe in December was when we finally decided that it would be not just on the list, but number two. And so the East Palestine situation and the Norfolk Southern train derailment just shined the light and gave us kind of the most recent story. But this is a perpetual story on the Ohio, right? You know, like this is one that got national attention, but in many respects, spills, you know just discharge. All of those things are happening every single day. Meanwhile, we have systems that are falling apart on the Ohio, right? Like East Palestine is actually a perfect example, you know, so when that happened, when the train derailment happened, it got into the Ohio River, there was a a, a chemical plume, and it was going right through Appalachia.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (09:04):

And those tiny little communities do not have their own water systems <laugh>, right? So they had to depend on ORSANCO, which is a regional kind of sanitation district that, that has some monitoring equipment. They had to depend on them [to know] when to turn off their drinking water systems, right? And, and that infrastructure right now needs to be upgraded. It needs to be updated. Like it’s all old technology, and this is a massive amount of people who are affected by this. They got lucky this time, ORSANCO did a great job, especially whenever you think about like the limited budget that they’re operating on. But in order for us to actually plan for the future, going back to mismanagement, let’s manage it, right? Let’s plan for the future. Let’s make sure that these people are protected no matter where they fall on the poverty line, no matter if they’ve got this big fancy system like you might see in certain urban communities, or they’ve got no system at all, they all deserve clean water.

Josh Raulerson (10:04):

Well, it’s hard to think of a more vivid and visible example of the kind of concerns that you’re talking about with the Ohio specifically than East Palestine, but of course there’s a whole lot more going on, as you mentioned, a lot of industrial activity happening throughout this corridor. Could you tell me a bit more about the impacts from pollution, the various sources, the various, you know, consequences of that pollution for this watershed?

Heather Taylor-Miesle (10:25):

Yeah, I mean, I think, again, it goes back to our parts of the country. We build things, right? Pennsylvania, Ohio, that’s what we do. We build things, and that’s a legacy that we’re actually pretty proud of, at least I am over on this side of the river. And so that has to come with thought, that has to come with a dedication to being a good neighbor. And unfortunately, that is not always the way that it has been. And, and currently it, it is often not the way it is whenever you see like the rollback of public safeguards, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of federal and state efforts that happen where people are like, oh, we, that’s just unnecessary regulation. Like that is a, that’s a weird word, but people need to understand regulation is literally what is standing in between you and like pollution in your, in your drinking water, right?

Heather Taylor-Miesle (11:20):

Like that is the public safeguard that that regulation is the protection for your family. And so you have like the Dow Chemicals of the world. You have the, the countless coal companies. You’ve got all of these, these different kinds of manufacturing and chemical and fossil fuel production facilities. You know, I’m not saying that we need to close all those down. I don’t love all of them, right? But like, I’m not saying close ’em down, but like there are ways to do things that can both protect your family and keep them economically vibrant and making money for the region, right? So I am the daughter of a natural gas pipeliner <laugh>. And so as you can imagine, early in my career, Thanksgivings might not have always been super duper comfortable, but over the years, I think that what my dad and I found is that we had way more in common than we didn’t because he wanted to do — like the pipeline and stuff,

Heather Taylor-Miesle (12:17):

he wanted to do it right too, right? And so like, how can we do these things? You know, I might not love that, but like, how can we do this this in a way that’s good-neighbor focused? The other thing we can’t forget is that a whole bunch of people are probably gonna move our way in the, in the next period of time, right? If you look at California, if you look at anybody who’s depending on the Colorado River, Arizona, New Mexico, any of those, that region, those folks have got to be looking around and going, Hmm, <laugh>, you know, things are on fire, the water’s not guaranteed, and it’s getting a little pricey, right? You know, and so you’re gonna see people who are gonna move. And in fact, we’re already seeing a migration of businesses that are moving this way because water is readily accessible. And so as more people come here as these businesses headquarter here, Google, and, you know Amazon and Intel, they’ve all been announcing huge operations in central Ohio. I know that one, and I’m sure that we’re not the only ones, you know, as they’re all coming, how do we make sure that we have balance and that that’s what we’re asking for. We want, we want healthy people, we want a healthy ecosystem, and we want a good economy. And the Ohio River can handle all of those things.

Josh Raulerson (13:37):

It’s definitely worth noting that it’s not just industrial pollution we’re talking about. By virtue of the population — growing population — of this region, of the big cities along the Ohio River, there are human, direct human impacts as well. Like, where I am in Pittsburgh, I think possibly like the very first discharge point for any kind of impact on the Ohio River happens at the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority plant that’s in the midst of a massive upgrade. And from everything I’ve seen, they’re doing it right, very conscientiously, but there’s no getting around the fact that that many people flushing their toilets, you know, that’s going to have an impact. And it’s fascinating to me how that connects with what you were talking about with demographic and population shifts out west being driven by climate change, people coming here, we often talk about water issues in this part of the country in terms of, you know, too much versus not enough. And here it’s about too much, but it’s new to me to think about water scarcity to the west being an impact on this part of the country as well.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (14:34):

I don’t think that that’s an immediate problem. Just so you know, Josh, I think that like… It’s scarcity, it’s quality. There’s just more pressures, right? You get more pressures and more pressures, you know, more accidents. Like we saw in East Palestine, more big headquarters that are happening, more extreme weather events, more agricultural operations, bigger toxic algal blooms. Like you have all of that stuff. And for a bit, we’re not probably gonna have to worry about scarcity, but the quality and therefore the affordability are gonna be big issues.

Donna Kohut (15:08):

So the Lehigh River made the list this year, and that was really about development, right? And so going to the point that as people are moving this way, as we see these big headquarters come in, as we see new development, you know, not just commercial development, but like residential development, all of that, that’s all gonna have an impact on these really fragile water systems. Donna, I don’t know if you have anything to add on the challenges that we face and the opportunities that are in those.

Donna Kohut (15:39):

Yeah, so I work, my work focuses in the Delaware River Basin, so kind of a large geographic region here on the other side of the state. And the Delaware River — fun fact — is the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi. So we love, we love saying that fact. And so really it depends on where you are in the watershed, depends on like what we’re, what we’re working on, right? So a lot of what we’ve been talking about here at PennFuture more broadly is stormwater impacts, right? So the increase in development. And then I know Josh, you had mentioned, you know, sewage treatment, there’s a lot of issues further south kind of in the Philadelphia region on the Delaware specifically in terms of working on CSOs and, and dissolved oxygen and how that impacts, you know, folks’ ability to recreate as well as the sturgeon population, et cetera.

Donna Kohut (16:32):

So there’s a lot of what we are seeing is more cumulative impacts, right? Instead of being able to, you know, point to a specific plant or point to a specific industry center and being able to say, oh, that’s, you know, dumping X into the waterways. It’s really about this increase in development in the region. And what does that mean in terms of up at the top of the watersheds, you’ve got headwaters that, you know, we’re seeing more impervious surface moving in, which is going to have all sorts of impact on, quite frankly, the cleanest streams in the entire state of Pennsylvania, right? And then as you move further south, you continue to accumulate pollutants as you go down any watershed. But then all of that kind of accumulates and, and comes to a head in some of the more kind of urban stretches where you’ve got, in the Lehigh Valley, you’ve got Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem who have kind of some of the highest rates of impaired waterways according to the DEP.

Donna Kohut (17:33):

And then obviously Philadelphia has an extreme amount of impaired waterways, right? Because they’re, they’re sitting there at the base and not only do they have their own history of industry, kind of Pennsylvania’s legacy, but as well as all of those other impacts that continue to flow downstream for them. So stormwater is a major, major factor for us on this side of the state. We’re seeing quite an influx of both kind of additional residents as well as the impacts of, of various kind of industries. So the Lehigh River we have our own history of industry. The Lehigh River has, it’s kind of been, you know, the home to the industrial revolution in the past. And so, so far it has been able to survive and be resilient in the face of the coal industry, in the face of logging, in the face of the cement industry.

Donna Kohut (18:27):

And then Bethlehem Steel <laugh> is right here in the Lehigh Valley, right? And we’ve, we’ve managed to survive and, and come back from all of those. And so the next piece of industry, the next threat moving in is really what we’re seeing as kind of irresponsible, large-scale industrial development, right? I mean, what a phrase. And it’s really the logistics industry that’s coming in. And you had mentioned California earlier, and the buildout of distribution centers, also known as warehouses more colloquially in the region, is comparable to what they’re seeing as that same buildout in the Imperial Valley in southern California. It is that large of a scale, and a lot of folks don’t really kind of, it’s, it’s hard to see, right? We’re not kind of out in the middle of the desert. They’re kind of tucked away in various places, but we’ve got about four square miles of impervious surface at this point from this industry alone. And when you pave over any watershed at, at that rate, you’re going to have a pretty serious impact. And yes, we are seeing an influx in population. The Lehigh Valley is continuing to grow by, by tens of thousands of folks. And so yeah, it’s only, it’s only going to continue and only going to expand and, and we’re seeing it continue to expand throughout the watershed itself.

Josh Raulerson (19:48):

Well, and that development is not only massive, but I think all very recent, right? Like, is it possible that one of the reasons it might not be top-of-mind for people who aren’t right there, is that some of the most dramatic effects have yet to, to manifest?

Donna Kohut (20:02):

Yes. So for folks who have been living here for about 10 years now, we have seen this continue to increase. And the expansion of this buildout continues to grow and grow and grow. And then of course, the pandemic really accelerated some of that and made it very, very acute. But this is going to continue. We’ve seen regional planning commissions give us some numbers about the tens of millions of square feet that are still in the pipeline. We’ve seen this continue to expand up north. So outside of this this regional city center of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, it’s now expanding up north into the Pocono Mountain region, which is really just expansive and beautiful open space known for outdoor recreation, not warehouses, not industry buildouts. And the industry will tell you that you know, some of the reasons that they’re coming to this area is that especially the Lehigh Valley is in close proximity to tens of millions of people, right? We’re an hour and a half drive from Philadelphia. We are an hour and a half to two hours from New York City. We’re just across the river from some highly populated areas in New Jersey as well. And so that is really going to continue to fuel this industry. And then on top of what Heather was saying, is increased population. It’s just going to continue to grow, and it, and it can easily snowball in that way.

Josh Raulerson (21:34):

And one of the reasons that population is growing, a reason that businesses are locating in your part of the state, is because I think to some degree the proximity to all this great outdoor recreation. And I’m so glad you mentioned it because there’s this dichotomy between, you know, economic growth and prosperity on the one hand, and sort of environmental integrity on the other, as if they were mutually exclusive. But when you look at the outdoor recreation industry, which is one of the biggest in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania’s is one of the biggest in the country, they’re kind of one and the same. If you lose the quality of your natural resources, that impacts businesses that, you know, depend on outdoor recreation.

Donna Kohut (22:08):

Yes, a hundred percent. And I am speaking as somebody who built a 15-year career in outdoor recreation before doing what I do now and it is so valuable. I’m originally from the anthracite coal region on this side of the state, and you look at some of the pockets of the coal region where outdoor recreation has taken a really strong foothold and revitalized entire regional economies and continues to grow to this day. And part of that, the success of that, is because we’re so close to Philadelphia, New York, and all of that. And so it’s just a hop, skip and a jump away. And then the other piece, and this is coming from the Office of Outdoor Recreation from DCNR, is that if you compare the outdoor recreation industry to, to other industries within the state, it’s actually larger than coal, fracked gas, and oil in our state. It takes up 1.6% of our economy versus the 1.5 of those extraction industries. And so that is, that’s an incredibly important piece of this discussion and an important way to frame this conversation.

Josh Raulerson (23:18):

And certainly not to make it all about revenue and tax base and all those kinds of things, but there are like very concrete ecosystem services that are performed by the Lehigh River and its associated tributaries. What are the impacts that could disrupt those kinds of services? What would the, the sort of social cost of that be as well as the environmental costs? And then finally, I guess we should probably talk about climate change and how that figures in the Lehigh Valley, both as as cause of some of the issues and consequence maybe.

Donna Kohut (23:47):

Yes. Excellent questions. People don’t talk a lot about ecosystem services, but they’re very exciting and they’re very important. And so you’re absolutely right. We tend to talk about profit and revenue, right? We’re a profit driven society. It’s part of our culture. But really when we talk about water quality degradation, especially in the face of land development and impervious surface, we’re also, we’re not just talking about, oh, what revenue could we have generated? We’re also talking about, quite frankly, saving money <laugh>. Because intact ecosystems provide all sorts of services, these ecosystem services, and they can look like wetlands soaking up and filtering rainwater, right? Acting as a sponge and filtering out contaminants and, and really cleaning the top of, of the watershed, especially in the headwaters. And then along the way, you’re talking about riparian buffers, those really awesome, beautiful strips of land that have vegetation, they have wildlife that run along our creeks and streams, and they provide a similar service. So they’re going to be soaking up excess rain water. They’re going to be filtering out contaminants that may come from these impervious surfaces. Like road salt is, is an especially big issue out here as well as, you know, any liquids that come off of your vehicles, right? Your oil, your antifreeze, things like that. But it also slows down the flow.

Donna Kohut (25:14):

So you had mentioned climate change. When you remove, pave over, or clear cut forests and wetlands and riparian buffers, you are going to allow the flow from any extreme or intense rain event to flow directly into a waterway. There’s not going to be enough to really soak that up and slow down the flow. So your smaller creeks and streams are gonna be inundated, which is all going to rush downstream.

Donna Kohut (25:45):

And so again, when we talk about cumulative impacts, you can literally follow the flow down to the bottom of the watershed. So for us in the Lehigh Valley, that is where the Lehigh River meets the Delaware River, right at that confluence. The city of Easton has seen a lot of flooding over the decades. And so that’s another way that the communities in this particular part of the region are going to experience a more disproportionate impact of climate change. We get more rain, we get more flooding we reduce the amount of ecosystem services we have available to us, but then also that’s in terms of money that’s gonna re increase the wear and tear on our water treatment facilities, the warmer and the dirtier your water is that goes into your water treatment facilities, the more wear and tear you’re gonna have.

Donna Kohut (26:37):

And you’ve gotta pay for that. And quite frankly, you can put a price tag on the services that are provided by these ecosystems. And while again, we tend to talk about profit and revenue, you have to talk about the savings. If you are going to get rid of x amount of acres of wetlands or riparian buffers, who’s going to pay to replace that? Quite literally, where are you getting the money and who is going to have to pay for that? Is that the taxpayers? Is it the same person who is you know, biting their own nails to waiting to see if their car is gonna float away in the next rain event, right? In the next hurricane? So again, all of those impacts flow downstream.

Josh Raulerson (27:14):

Yeah, these impacts get absorbed by, you know, a lot of small rural communities, particularly in your part of the state. And when you look at the causes or the, the environment that led to all of this warehouse development in the northeast, one of the things that’s called out in, in the American Rivers report is this is a planning problem at some level. I’m wondering if you can speak to the challenges that these small communities face in managing these big weighty land-use decisions — what would help them, you know, do a better job with those decisions? And, and Heather, I’m also interested in what you’ve seen nationally, in other parts of the country, that might shed some light on that issue.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (27:52):

You go first, Donna.

Donna Kohut (27:53):

Okay. Yeah. When it comes to the municipal level, it, it gets very tricky. Municipal officials, first of all, are just like you and me and the, and your neighbor down the street. We’re just everyday folks. And I say “we,” because I am a member of my planning commission. We’re just everyday folks. We’re not, we’re not lawyers. We’re, we’re not scientists. And so part of it is, you know, taking the time to review your ordinances, making sure that you know what definitions are on the books and how you can use them. What do you have to fall back on? If you are in a situation where you feel the need to, or your, your constituents, your residents are asking you to push back on, on development. And so one of the first issues is really the limitations of the tools for municipal officials.

Donna Kohut (28:37):

So that’s a, that’s a big one. What is available to them. Another is knowing that a lot of these ordinances at the municipal level are really outdated. So the definition of warehouse may not have been updated since 1970. And so that definition does not include, you know, a 1.9 million square-foot Amazon warehouse next to a wetland, right? Like, so these, these weren’t anticipated. So the speed with which this development is happening while being able to try to play catch-up with ordinances and definitions is a big challenge for municipal officials. And then finally, I would say there’s, there’s not a ton other than the definitions and, you know, placing potential conditional uses. It is kind of a development by right state. And so there are some municipal officials in the Lehigh Valley who are starting to ask the question of, is there such a thing as having your fair share of x amount of use, right?

Donna Kohut (29:36):

So, you know, I’m in X municipality, I have 15 warehouses. At which point can we say, “Hmm, we’ve had enough?” Like, in terms of the amount of land that we have, in terms of the community that we have, when can we start to say no? And so that is another piece that it’s exciting to see, but also we’re still in this gray area of what does that mean? Is that something folks can, can fall back on? And then I would just add that, that the last piece is our land development process in the state of Pennsylvania is really looks at projects one at a time. We don’t look at the cumulative impacts of what it means to say, okay, we have a warehouse here. That’s cool, we have a distribution center here that makes sense. But what happens when one becomes three becomes 10, becomes 20, becomes four square miles of pavement? And that is a limitation that I see at that municipal level.

Josh Raulerson (30:35):

Are municipalities communicating with each other about these things? Or is it moving in that direction, maybe?

Donna Kohut (30:39):

That’s a great question.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (30:40):

I think that’s where it becomes spotty, right, Donna? Like I was gonna say, funding is always an issue. And you know, looking nationally how these things get funded is very different depending where you are. Even if you share the same water system, right? That, like, one of the challenges is water flows <laugh>. And so where it flows, how it flows, who it flows to, who gets to it first, like all those things, you know, make things complicated. So funding is a big issue, but like who is talking to whom? And there’s also an equity and inclusion portion of this, right? Like some people are coming in and they literally have like excellent engineers, you know, who have been doing this their entire career, who are managing these systems and like have a specific, you know, viewpoint and a specific way of doing things that is great because they have resources.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (31:31):

And then you have other much smaller systems that, you know, may be a much more limited expertise or capacity of people like just literal bodies who are involved. There’s also like a kind of an unlevel playing field that you see, especially in these systems that go between more urban and more rural communities as well. So, so funding, cooperation, inclusivity, and setting up systems that that really can be, you know, bring people to the table. Foresight that considers things like development, climate change all of those things are gonna be really important so that we avoid some of the sins that we’ve seen transpire in the west. And we do our water management appropriately. Because the thing is the water doesn’t care, right? If there’s no water, that’s what we’re seeing in the west, you know, that there’s a lot of partisanship, I think in our part of the country.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (32:25):

You don’t see it the same way in the west because if there’s no water, there’s no Democrats or Republicans. What you do see is the different sectors trying to figure this out. But even within the sectors, it’s, it’s quite challenging because, you know, what a farmer wants in New Mexico is different than what a farmer wants in California. And so it’s kind of a hot mess there. So like, let’s learn, right? Because the water doesn’t care if it’s available or not. If it’s polluted or not, it’s still gonna flow. We still need it, so why don’t we try to, to do it well so that we all have access? Places like the Lehigh, places like the Ohio, places like the Delaware, you can do a lot with these systems. So it doesn’t have to be like only one use, like nobody’s asking it just to be for kayaking, but how can we come together and think big together? And that’s why we’re so excited about places that have these coalitions forming who are applying critical thought and, and helping us make sure that we are set up for success in this part of the country.

Donna Kohut (33:29):

Yeah. And just, just really quick, a small like, local level example of all of that is the uptick in regional planning here on this side of the state. There are folks who are getting together in their municipalities and looking across their municipal borders and saying, Hey, you have quarries there, I have warehouses here. They’re trying to put these additional uses here. How can we come together? And when you get those regional plans, when you get those municipalities to come together, they’re able to kind of expand the land base that they have to work with and, and where they can kind of chunk it out and say, okay, we’re gonna have industry over here and then you can have more residents and then there’s open space over here. Let’s protect this. And so that’s another example of innovation that’s happening more, you know, to get it more gra at the municipal and and hyper-local level. It’s kind of like a smaller, smaller version of, of what Heather was talking about, so that they can look forward and anticipate what’s, what’s coming. Yeah,

Heather Taylor-Miesle (34:25):

It’s gonna be important for big or small, right? <Laugh> doesn’t matter the size of your river, everybody’s going to depend on it. Because whoever figures out the water debacle in this part of the country will be the one who’s in charge in the future, because it will be our most precious resource.

Josh Raulerson (34:40):

I mean, do you think there is new attention, or maybe a new kind of attention, being given to these issues when people are looking at it through the lens of environmental justice? Like what can we learn about watershed health by thinking about disproportionate impact on human populations, different communities? You know, how can cleaner rivers help contribute to a more just society in general?

Heather Taylor-Miesle (35:01):

You know, it’s interesting you would say that right now on the Schuylkill River in Reding, Pennsylvania, there’s a kind of a festival going on. I’ll, I can find the name of it, but it’s, it’s in real time and we’re getting these beautiful pictures back because it’s really an intersectional event at, at this park that is talking about not just the rivers, but like the art, the recreation. It’s bringing teachers together. It’s the intersectional nature of these things and that healthy rivers means healthy people means healthy communities. You know, because they’re a healthy ecosystems and in a healthy economy, like, it just, it all builds upon itself, you know? And, and the more and quicker that we, we think about it, the the better off we’ll be. It goes back to that original, the American Rivers motto, life depends on rivers. And if we start to see that connectivity between ourselves and our local river, we’re gonna, we’re gonna be fine.

Josh Raulerson (36:00):

Heather, how regionally specific are these problems that we’ve been talking about with the Ohio and the Lehigh? Obviously, you know, we’ve been drawing the contrast and making comparisons with, with the West, but in the, in the national context, in what ways do or don’t the things we’ve been talking about in Pennsylvania reflect what what you’re seeing elsewhere?

Heather Taylor-Miesle (36:19):

Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. Well, I mean, I’ll say greed is greed, <laugh>. And so, you know, whenever there’s greed involved, it kind of tends to be the same. But I will say, you know, each ecosystem is different. What they need, the challenge they have to overcome, like Donna was pointing out the Delaware as you know, this amazing entire river system without a dam on it, that’s a big deal. Dams are, can be really challenging, right? To, to really have that river completely connected means that it’s in better shape than a lot of rivers are. And so how we would work on the Delaware with that amazing group of folks who work on it every day, that that, like they’ve got one of the best coalitions in the entire country working on that river. How we work there with stakeholders is a, as an organization like American Rivers is going to be different than we might work on the Ohio or somewhere else because of the challenges, the desires of the communities.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (37:16):

You know, you asked about a little bit about environmental justice, the way at least that American Rivers is working. I know PennFuture works this way as well, and there’s a lot of others, like, you know, we’ve started to go ask <laugh>. That didn’t always happen in the past, and making sure that those voices are really centered at the table, that they’re not just invited but that they’re centered upon, is a different way of doing business. And I think that the river systems that are authentically doing that are seeing progress faster and you know, we’re having bolder action and I think it’s gonna be more durable and they’re gonna be set up for success more long-term.

Josh Raulerson (37:49):

These are, these are all big problems with often big solutions: infrastructure, technology, law policy, all, all those big things. If what’s exciting about these case studies is the potential for it to be much better, where do individual people fit into that picture? Is there a role for people, you know, not just through advocating and being civically engaged in all the usual kind of, you know, ways you try to influence government decision making and those kinds of things, but like say if I’m a residential property owner, can I, can I be part of the solution?

Heather Taylor-Miesle (38:20):

There are a million things that people can do, right? Like using certain kinds of organic materials for fertilizer, only applying when necessary. Like there’s all, like, there’s a huge list and you can find that list almost at any environmental website, but is one of them. But really I would suggest first and foremost, like get connected to your river, right? And that doesn’t have to be through a formal organization. Take a walk beside it, you know, go kayak on it. You know, just notice it when you go over the bridge <laugh> because the more connected you are, the more strength in the movement to protect that river there will be. Because there’s a lot of different ways to do this, but it starts first and foremost with people caring, and you can’t care if you don’t spend time with it, right? And so, so really getting that connection is the first thing that I think starts everything else. And then obviously like being thoughtful about your, your footprint, right? We talk a lot about carbon footprints, of course rivers have everything in the world to do with climate change, but like what your water footprint is is is super important in this too. And, and so there’s all kinds of ways to impact, but start with just noticing and getting that connection.

Josh Raulerson (39:37):

I love the idea of encouraging people to get on the water and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to plug the Pennsylvania River Sojourns program, which is just about to kick off for this season. So a great way to get to know your local watershed and feel a sort of stake and an ownership in it. Donna, are you involved in sojourn activities on the Lehigh, or have you participated before?

Donna Kohut (39:57):

Actually, short answer is yes. I don’t know that I’ll be able to participate this year, but in a different lifetime I worked for Wildlands Conservancy and they organize — and that was my job at the time as bike and boat coordinator, I actually organized and coordinated the Lehigh River Sojourn in that, that season that I was working for them, which was really wonderful. Spending 15 years working and being completely immersed in that watershed and being able to organize and coordinate that Sojourn was a wonderful experience. I highly recommend folks, if you’re in the Lehigh River watershed, check it out, jump on board and take a tour because it’s wonderful. You’ll get to see anything from the beautiful, pristine, quiet regions of the Poconos. And then you get to kind of travel through you know, industrial history and like the beautiful section that, of the river that goes through Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem. And, and get to like, go past all of the old industry and, and enjoy, enjoy the quality of the water that we’ve got now that we’re working to protect and maintain.

Josh Raulerson (40:56):

Well, on that note, let’s wrap this up. Donna Kohut from Penn Future and Heather Taylor-Miesle from American Rivers, thank you so much for being on Pennsylvania legacies today. Really appreciate your, your insights and I enjoyed the conversation.

Donna Kohut (41:09):

Thank you so much.

Heather Taylor-Miesle (41:10):

Any time, Josh. Keep up the good work. You too. You too, Donna. Bye guys.

Donna Kohut (41:13):

Thanks. Bye.

Josh Raulerson (41:19):

Heather Taylor-Miesle is Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Regional Conservation with American Rivers and Donna Kohut is Delaware River Basin Campaign Manager with PennFuture. To view the complete list of America’s 10 most endangered rivers, learn more about why they’re in trouble and what can be done about it. Check out the episode description for this podcast on the PEC website at This episode is number 191. We’ll have a link to the American Rivers report, as well as more information on PEC’s watershed work statewide, focusing on stormwater issues in the southeastern PA, but active elsewhere in abandoned mine land reclamation and reforestation, and a host of other projects. Of course, that’s just one small slice of PEC’s portfolio of program work, which also includes much activity on trails and outdoor recreation, getting people outdoors across Pennsylvania, water trails and Pennsylvania River Sojourns, which are getting underway more or less as we speak.

Josh Raulerson (42:21):

Across the state, we work on legislation and policy with an emphasis on energy, clean energy, decarbonization of the electricity sector, controlling methane emissions from natural gas production and more. All of that information is on the website along with all 190 past podcast episodes. You can stream them right there in your web browser at peck pa dot og. That’ll wrap up this episode. Glad you’re able to join us and hope you can tune in for the next one coming out in just about two weeks time. Until then, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Rollerson and thanks for listening.