By Jack Firneno
Wire Staff Writer
Members of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership recently returned to Abington to continue work that has already earned them the Community Green Award from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
Earlier this month, a group of nearly 60 volunteers planted 350 trees and shrubs on the edge of the Abington Junior High School campus along the creek. The plantings — part of a project that began last year — are components of what’s called a riparian buffer, or vegetation near a waterway that filters out garbage and absorbs excess rainwater so the waterway doesn’t become polluted or easily flooded.
Starting as a small stream in Montgomery County, the Tookany Creek expands and runs through Northeast Philadelphia before reaching the Delaware River. The creek affects local wildlife and drinking water, but decades of building have disrupted the natural habitat, resulting in water pollution and flooding in the area.
“We need upstream communities to make the creek fishable, clean and swimmable,” explained Julie Slavet, executive director of the Partnership.
With no riparian buffer occurring naturally in the area anymore, excess rainwater was traveling unchecked into the creek. The problem worsened over decades due to roofs and blacktop roads that allow rainwater and trash to travel quickly without absorbing any of it.
“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the construction mentality was to just get the water out as soon as possible,” explained Jen Sherwood of the Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) in Abington. “Now, we’re learning to work with Mother Nature again instead of against her.”
Working closely with the Partnership on this project, the EAC is just one of the many local groups involved with the buffer planting. “Abington has a real tradition of community service. We had a great number of people that turned out. They were very efficient, very enthusiastic,” said Slavet.
She also noted that, along with volunteers from the Whole Foods in Jenkintown, a significant number of the volunteers were area junior high and high school students working through Abington High School’s Green Thumb Club: “It’s a really big service learning program. The buffer wouldn’t have been planted without those kids.”
The large community effort was needed, in part, because the buffer planting involved more than just putting up any old trees or shrubs. Part of the plan involved putting up deer fencing and also reintroducing “native” plants that were in decline while weeding out invasive ones. Native plants, or flora and fauna that grow naturally in the area, support local wildlife and serve specific functions in the local ecosystem. Others that were introduced later, usually for ornamental purposes, don’t work the same way.
The native plants are also best at soaking up the water due to their deep roots, and replenishing these will let the buffer grow out on its own.
“It won’t look neat; it’s not straight or organized like landscaping. It’s nature. As the trees get bigger, it will turn into forest,” explained Sherwood.
It will take years until the buffer reaches that point, but before that happens, the Watershed Foundation will continue its work in the area. This month, the group received its award from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which included a new sign that explains about the buffer and what plants are native to the area. The Foundation will return in the spring to post the sign. Meanwhile, it will keep in regular contact with the school Green Thumb club so students can help maintain it.
“It’s in a very busy spot in Abington. [School sports] teams play there, people walk their dogs there,” said Slavet. “We call these ‘outdoor classrooms.’ They’re educational opportunities for everyone.”