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Monday, September 2, 2013

Does a Riparian Buffer Belong in a City Park?

Allentown’s Morning Call recently published an Op-Ed piece written by local blogger Michael Molovinsky, who has a passion for preserving historic structures in the city’s renowned Lehigh Parkway. Lehigh Parkway was the beneficiary of a number of Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects during the 1930s, with various massive stone bridges, fountains, walls, and stairs remaining in various states of repair.  So there are plenty of historic structures in Lehigh Parkway for residents to take pride in and care for.  In my mind though, the most prominent feature of Lehigh Parkway is the Little Lehigh Creek, which the Parkway follows for about three miles through the city.

Little Lehigh Creek in Lehigh Parkway
(photo credit:  wikipedia.org)
In his Op-Ed, Molovinsky blasted a riparian buffer restoration project planned for Lehigh Parkway and denigrated the efforts of the Wildlands Conservancy, a local non-profit engaged in ecosystem restoration and preservation.  Wildlands obtained the necessary permits and outside funding to replant riparian buffers along the Little Lehigh in the Parkway. Volunteers from the Little Lehigh Chapter of Trout Unlimited, of which I am a member, will assist with replanting the buffers.

Molovinsky implied that Wildlands is a special interest group trying to hijack Lehigh Parkway for riparian buffer experiments that would compromise the public’s view of and access to the creek. He said that the function of a riparian buffer is to filter fertilizer from rain runoff and from entering the creek and lamented that current streamside buffers are nothing more than strips of weeds that block the view of and access to the creek.  This is a shortsighted accusation, however, because riparian buffer restorations have been proven to improve the health of streams.  A healthy riparian buffer of 50 feet or greater would typically include various native plants, shrubs, and trees. They would absorb stormwater runoff to mitigate flooding, shade the summer sun to keep the spring-fed waters cool, and provide habitat for various insect species that will be a food source for both fish and birds.  A properly restored riparian buffer would indeed be aesthetically pleasing rather than the weedy eyesore envisioned by Molovinsky.

Dog in Lehigh Parkway. Most, but not all, dog owners
clean up after their pooches.
(photo credit:  http://www.delawareandlehigh.org)
The neatly mowed stream banks that Molovinsky idealizes allow sediment and pollutants, including geese and dog feces, unchecked access to the Little Lehigh, which is a drinking water source for the city of Allentown and some of the surrounding areas west of the city.  A drinking water source for well over 140,000 people, and Molovinsky is worried about a riparian buffer impairing the view of the creek?

With designated pathways mowed through the riparian buffers, the public could still access the stream, the buffers could still perform their intended functions, and the diverse ecosystem that thrives in a healthy riparian buffer could re-establish itself.  A healthy riparian buffer begets a healthy stream.

In addition to his Op-Ed stand against riparian buffer restoration, Molovinsky's blog also trashed a related effort by Wildlands Conservancy to remove two dams in Lehigh Parkway. Wildlands had obtained the necessary permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), the state body in charge of dams, to remove these two dams. They had the green light from the city’s parks department to remove these dams, which cause the water to slow down and sediment to build up behind them.  But at the 11th hour, Molovinsky tried to block removal of one of the dams, located just 18 feet downstream from the WPA-built Robin Hood Bridge, claiming without basis that removal would cause stream-bed scour that would undermine the bridge and cause it to wash out. Just days ago, however, following a public hearing by city council, Allentown’s mayor gave his approval for the dam removals after it became clear that Wildlands had done the proper engineering due diligence to rule out any adverse effects on the Robin Hood bridge from removal of the adjacent dam.  More obsolete dams have been removed in Pennsylvania than in any other state.  Why would PADEP have approved the dam removal if the effects on any nearby structures had not been properly evaluated?

Come on, Michael.  Environmental folks and history buffs need to work together to protect special places from the effects of over-development and urbanization.  We should not be at odds unnecessarily over things like removing detrimental dams and planting protective riparian buffers.

Joggers in Lehigh Parkway (photo credit: Express Times)
Nostalgia is tricky.  It can cause us to myopically yearn for a distant, simpler, and more picturesque time.  But 21st century scientists and anglers recognize that riparian buffers and dam removals are the key to the health of any stream.  In environmental science, just as in medical science, we are fortunate to have advanced far beyond common practices of the mid-1900s.