After languishing at the Department for Environmental Protection (DEP) for nearly twelve years, the Aquashicola Creek was finally recognized as an Exceptional Value designation in January. This creek, whose upper reaches meander through relatively undeveloped and preserved tracts of land, will now receive the highest level of legal protection provided to waterways in Pennsylvania. For any activity for which the DEP must issue a permit or approval where the creek’s water quality could be affected, the department must ensure, prior to issuing the permit or approval, that the water quality will not be degraded.
It’s been a long road for the Aquashicola/Pohopoco Watershed Conservancy (APWC), which has led the charge over the years for the creek’s redesignation. Previously, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission had designated sections of the creek as Class A Wild Trout Stream and Naturally Reproducing Trout Stream. However, APWC’s stream redesignation petition provided stream monitoring data and supporting information demonstrating that Aquashicola Creek and its tributaries qualify for the Exceptional Value designation. Exceptional Value streams receive significant regulatory protection from harmful pollution because polluters are required without exception to demonstrate that their discharges into the waterway will not degrade water quality.
The redesignation process is lengthy and requires collecting petitions, gathering letters, and providing public comments. With the support of local residents, lawmakers, and conservation organizations, the APWC was able to get the existing use of the creek recognized by DEP as Exceptional Value, which ensures protection from its source at Ross Common Creek located in Ross Township to its confluence with the Buckwha Creek in Lower Towamensing Township located in Carbon County. While DEP is still in the process of upgrading the official designated use of the Aquashicola Creek basin, classifying the Exceptional Value existing use ensures the creek will receive the utmost protections. (Learn more about designated and existing uses through this short Our Pocono Waters video.)
This upper section of the Aquashicola is relatively undeveloped and includes several contiguous preserved tracts of land, like sections of the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge and PA State Game Lands 168. The creek’s course flows parallel to the Appalachian Trail and Kittatinny Ridge, which is a world-famous Migratory Corridor of the Atlantic Flyway, and through wetlands that have special protection under Pennsylvania Code because they are home to threatened and/or endangered species of flora and fauna.
While the petition for the redesignation of the Aquashicola stalled at the DEP for over a decade, multiple development projects were proposed in the region that could have directly impacted this pristine creek. Threats posed by development in the Poconos are never-ending. Warehouses and resorts projects continue to appear in front of local planning commissions and zoning boards, and Pennsylvania’s healthiest waters are especially vulnerable to these forms of development.
Ultimately, an upgrade to Exceptional Value protects waterways designated as such, but it requires a great deal of dedication and determination to initiate the redesignation process and to follow it through to completion. The process seems simple on its face – submit a petition to DEP, DEP performs an assessment of the waterway, the stream is often added to a bundle of other streams for consideration, and is moved through the final steps of the regulatory process with the PA Environmental Quality Board (EQB). However, it takes a great deal of time and resources, especially when dealing with an underfunded and overburdened regulatory agency such as DEP who must choose which streams to prioritize across the Commonwealth. PennFuture’s Stream Redesignation Handbook breaks down the details of the process from start to finish, if you’d like to learn more.
Special protection water quality designations – especially that of Exceptional Value – are incredibly important. Currently, more than thirty percent of Pennsylvania’s creeks and streams are degraded and polluted. Only two percent are so clean and healthy that they are considered Exceptional Value. Eighty percent of those stream miles are found in the Poconos (primarily, Monroe, Wayne, and Pike Counties). Once these streams are degraded, it’s challenging – and sometimes impossible – to rehabilitate them. That’s why this redesignation process is vital to protecting water quality in the Commonwealth. We’ve got to provide the greatest protections possible to these pristine waterways before we lose them.
We know that there are local and regional benefits to special designated creeks and streams. They add to the character and natural beauty of the region, support the local economy, and offer ecological services. For instance, we know that Exceptional Value streams in the Upper and Mid Delaware support $22 million in regional economic activities. We also know that protecting these creeks and streams provides wildlife habitat and mitigates local flooding. And when we expand our view across the Delaware River Basin, we see that the headwaters of the Delaware River provide drinking water for over 13 million people.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has a long history of waterways polluted by heavy industry, agriculture and stormwater runoff, and our dirty water problem is getting worse, not better. That’s why it is absolutely critical to celebrate victories like the one we just saw with the Aquashicola Creek, and why it’s vital for these Exceptional Value streams to receive the utmost protections from the state.
Please help us protect Exceptional Value streams by pledging to defend Our Pocono Waters! We can’t do this without your support.