Smarter Yards, Cleaner Streams

As a result of planning decisions made decades ago, communities throughout suburban Philadelphia struggle with flooding and other negative impacts from heavy rainfall. These conditions don’t just affect residential properties, which account for the bulk of land use in the Wissahickon and Tookany/Tacony-Frankford watersheds — they’re also linked with broader environmental problems like streambank erosion, pollution and sedimentation, habitat loss, and encroaching invasives. But suburban homeowners, perhaps more than any one group of stakeholders, have a special role to play in addressing these challenges.

“We recognize this whole area was developed before there was any kind of stormwater management,” said Jamie Anderson of the Eastern Delaware County Stormwater Collaborative, which piloted the Stream Smart home audit program in partnership with the Pennsylvania Resources Council. “So it’s really important that we get residents to rethink how they manage stormwater on their property.”

That rethinking is already well underway in many neighborhoods, as evidenced by the growing popularity of rain barrels, downspout planters, and other relatively simple and inexpensive features that almost any property owner can install to help sequester the water that falls on their property. While such interventions may seem modest, every drop diverted from the storm drain makes a difference.

For a select handful of homes, though, there’s a chance to make a really big difference. A single, well-placed rain garden or bioswale, properly constructed and maintained, can effectively manage an entire neighborhood’s runoff, allowing excess rainwater to collect and gradually soak into the ground rather than rush directly into overflowing creeks and rivers.

Stream Smart is all about capitalizing on these opportunities.

Funded through a grant provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by the William Penn Foundation through the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, the program targets residential areas with the greatest potential for green stormwater infrastructure projects and recruits property owners to host them.

It’s not a hard sell. In addition to helping out their local watersheds and learning how to better manage their own properties, participants get to upgrade their backyards with elegant landscaping features, beautiful native plants, and the wildlife they attract.

“Especially during lockdown last year, we saw an amazing amount of bird life and a much larger variety of butterflies,” said Timothy Voit, whose driveway near the headwaters of Jenkintown Creek would transform into a rushing river whenever it rained. Thanks to a berm planting constructed with help from Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, all the excess water is gone — replaced by colorful blooms, happy pollinators, and a daily parade of fascinating critters. “We actually had a snapping turtle walking down our driveway,” Voit added.

Often, signing up for Stream Smart means reclaiming a previously unusable part of a property.

“We were completely unable to hang out in my backyard,” said Abington homeowner and Stream Smart participant Anne Lawler. “It was water-washed. If you walked back here, your feet soaked in. You watched flies and bugs come up around you. We were never back here. We had a back deck, we didn’t use it.”

Lawler worked with Wissahickon Trails and contractor NativeScapes to transform a swampy patch of lawn into a kid-friendly space that regularly draws compliments from passersby along the path through adjacent Roychester Park. She believes the project has changed how her neighbors think about their own backyards.

“I think people are very excited,” Lawler said. “And I think the fact that this happened during the year of the pandemic allowed a lot of different conversations to happen.”

We’re finding that people are really engaging more in this idea of turning their properties into something that works for nature

Jennifer Bilger, Engagement Director for Wissahickon Trails, acknowledges that the curb appeal of a residential GSI installation may not be immediately obvious to everyone.

“People are used to seeing lawns,” Bilger said. “They’re not used to seeing native meadows or rain gardens taking up the spot that lawns used to.”

But attitudes are changing, thanks in part to the ambassadorship of Stream Smart families like the Lawlers and the Voits. Jamie Anderson also credits the influence of Pennsylvania-based ecologist and author Doug Tallamy, whose work has helped to popularize the idea of rewilding residential properties.

“We’re finding that people are really engaging more in this idea of turning their properties into something that works for nature,” Anderson said. “Not just working for biodiversity, but can we also work for water quality and stormwater? We’re finding there’s a growing willingness in the community for that kind of work.”