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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.


  1. Good post. I read Molovinsky regularly and I applaud his efforts to raise awareness about WPA structures. If they were located in LMT it would definitely be something I'd be all over. The awareness he raises and work he does to protect and in some cases unearth these historic strictures is important. I wanted to go to one of his WPA walks but it never worked out timing wise.

    But he's wrong on buffers. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder I get it. But personally I think riparian buffer zones are beautiful. I lived next to the creek my whole life. I know if you mow up to streamside the bank erodes. Just look to the Willows where they mowed to the streamside for years. (They stopped now..)

    The dams I kind of go back and forth on. I get the science in terms of water quality. I think the 'danger argument' at least with robin hood is exaggerated. It's ridiculous the city put up a "danger" sign 2 weeks ago just to take a picture of it to justify the argument of tearing the dam down. And I do get arguments that the park founders had a certain vision and at least in the case of Robin hood the dam was a part of that vision.

    So I guess I'm with him on WPA. I get both sides with the dams (at least Robin hood). But I completely disagree on the buffers. Mowing to streamside damages the stream in a number of ways. Period.

  2. s. alderfer, let me commend you for presenting my POV more or less accurately. wildlands planted a riparian at cedar park, which quickly became overgrown with invasive species. in order to prevent this from happening, the buffers require much more work than the previous mowing regiment. the park department is very short handed, and the wildlands just walks away after the initial project, with no follow through work. the same has occurred at trout creek. a weedy eyesore isn't something i envision, it's the reality that people now see in all our parks. political correctness and this administration's indifference to the parks have conspired to put the wildlands in charge. planting the buffers is the easy part, taking care of them is problematic. at the end of the day, lehigh parkway is still a city park. i hope some access points are created for view and experience of the waterway.

    1. Thanks for checking in, Michael. I appreciate your response. I agree that the difficulty is in the follow up to the riparian buffer planting. If invasives are attacked annually after planting the buffer, the general consensus is that they can be brought under control after about 4-5 years. After that, the native plants should be able to out-compete with them. It's no secret that the Allentown Parks Dept. is getting pulled in many other directions and cannot deal with invasives at restored riparian buffers in Trout Park and Cedar Park. My suggestion to the Parks Dept. would be to have the city's EAC recruit a couple of Boy Scout troops to help out. Here in Lower Macungie, scout troop #131 helps out our EAC with that sort of thing at some of the township's naturalized properties. If the city doesn't have the resources to do the invasives management in house, they need to take charge in organizing a volunteer effort. If done properly, the buffer should be able to support itself in a few years.

  3. scott, some points that need clarification; the little lehigh isn't threatened from goose and dog feces, but from the overflowing LCA sewage pipe which runs along side of the creek throughout the park. wildlands has chosen to ignore this over- riding reality, they do seem to cherry pick their science. although my efforts about the dam may seem 11th hour to you, please realize that i'm a long time advocate for the parks and a watchdog for city government. i had no knowledge of the plan to remove the dam until the week before i came forward. although that may not have been wildlands fault, citizens of allentown were entitled to input about the loss of such an asset. the city engineer testified that in fact wildlands had NOT provided any supporting engineering about the bridge scour to that time. to my knowledge they still might not have. i still do not believe that they know more about the history of the dam than I do. please understand that they are a sacred cow, with an agenda which pleases the new park director, and that they have grants to spend or lose, but that doesn't make their proclamations the gospel.

  4. Yes, Michael, the LCA sewage overflows are a serious concern. However, they are a separate issue from work on the riparian buffers. Here in the upstream municipalities, LCA is working with the municipalities under a state-approved Corrective Action Plan to repair leaks in their sanitary sewer lines. I can't imagine that Allentown and LCA are not working under a similar mandate to correct leaks. Overflows are a separate issue and result from either a high water table infiltrating cracked sewer pipes during big rain events or else (more likely) people diverting their downspouts and sump pump discharges to the sanitary sewer instead of to the street. As part of the state's Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) mandate, the city should be seeking out those violators and forcing them to re-direct those discharges. The MS4 program would also be the impetus for the city to try to filter litter out of their storm sewer discharges (usually via detention basins) before it gets into the Little Lehigh. I can understand your frustration with the apparent lack of transparency from the parks department on the dam removals and riparian buffers. In Lower Macungie, we have the opposite problem in that we have one commissioner who effectively blocks any sort of stream improvement efforts, because he thinks he knows more about hydrology than PADEP, DCNR, and anyone else who he disagrees with. There is no happy medium, is there?

  5. scott, you raise an interesting issue. in south whitehall property owners are being forced to block close their basement drains. for over 99.9% of homeowners these drains are only used in an emergency, such as the hotwater heater popping off at the safety valve, or a broken pipe. in short, homeowners must sacrifice their safety net, so that LCA and the municipalities can avoid proper repairs and enlargement of the sewer systems, both storm and sanitary.

    in allentown's cedar park, the storm sewers empty directly into the streams, bypassing the riparian buffers.

    scott, i have little respect for state approved anything, or any of their studies, cherry picked by the wildlands conservancy. please understand that fracking is state approved. in allentown the state approved mixing sewage and trash into pellets to burn for a private operator to make electric. if there's not enough trash to mix with the sewage, they are allowed to import garbage from new jersey and new york. where was the wildlands on these issues? i didn't see or hear them at the hearings.