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Group 2 Delaware River Watershed Initiative


Schuylkill Highlands

The Schuylkill Highlands Cluster comprises the Pickering, French, Pigeon, Stony, Sixpenny and Hay Creeks.

These Pennsylvania waterways generally run west to east, from the forested hills of the Hopewell Big Woods area of southern Berks and northern Chester Counties, across a mix of pastoral and suburban landscapes, to the Phoenixville area—where both the French and Pickering Creeks empty into the Schuylkill River. Hay Creek is an exception, running southwest to northeast and emptying directly into the Schuylkill River at Birdsboro.

The Schuylkill Highlands include parts of six municipalities in Berks County and fifteen in Chester County. The cluster is located within the Schuylkill Highlands Conservation Landscape and the Pennsylvania Highlands region. It is part of the federally designated Highlands that stretches from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, encompassing one of the largest areas of intact forests on the East Coast.

Much of the land is wooded or in agriculture. Pennsylvania’s French Creek State Park and the National Park Service’s Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site are both in the heart of the Hopewell Big Woods, along with the Crows Nest Preserve of the Natural Lands Trust and State Game Lands 43. Chester County’s Warwick County Park is located near the lower, eastern edge of the Hopewell Big Woods. There are many other municipal parks throughout the cluster. Birdsboro Authority, the water provider for the borough, owns a 1,200-acre tract just northwest of French Creek State Park that is under a federal “Forest Legacy” conservation easement.

Drinking Water Source 5,400 People
Total Area 171 Sq. Mi.
Protected Land 11% Protected

Major Threats

Land-use Change
The conversion of natural and agricultural lands to developed uses, with large expanses of impervious area, permanently modifies the flow of water by increasing run-off and reducing infiltration.

Loss of riparian buffers
Lack of streamside forests, essential for maintaining in-stream ecosystems, is evident in older, developed areas and agricultural areas as well as in more recently converted land.

Roads and Sewage
Roads are a source of both stream pollution and stormwater problems. Failing septic fields leak untreated wastewater into streams.

Why it’s Important

The Schuylkill Highlands include a unique concentration of the state’s Exceptional-Value and High-Quality streams close to Philadelphia. Both Chester County and Berks County have identified the Hopewell Big Woods as an important conservation area, and many of the municipalities have programs that help to protect their remaining open lands, resulting in 31,840 acres of protected land (about 30 percent of the entire area).

In Berks County, where many of the high-priority lands are located, diminished public resources for forest preservation present an ongoing challenge. The principal threat to this cluster’s streams is development and suburban sprawl. Development converts natural and agricultural lands to acres of roads, rooftops and parking lots. It first disturbs the earth and washes sediment into streams, permanently modifying the flow of water through the stream system by increasing the volume and speed of stormwater run-off. This conversion of land has reduced the size of streamside forests—a natural buffer essential for maintaining in-stream ecosystems.

Chester County has long been one of the fastest-growing counties in Pennsylvania. Low-density suburban development is spreading from the south and east to the north, especially in Schuylkill River municipalities and the Route 100 corridor. The negative impacts of development have particularly affected water quality in the Pickering and Stony Creek watersheds.

What We Can Do

The principal goal of the Schuylkill Highlands plan is to preserve the existing water quality of the most pristine headwater streams by conserving an additional 2,000 acres and implementing a suite of restoration and stewardship projects. The plan also calls for improvements to road design, which is a significant factor for stream health in rural areas. The cluster will target land-protection efforts in the following focus areas, all tributaries of the Schuylkill River: Pigeon Creek and Stony Run in Chester County, Sixpenny and Hay Creeks in Berks County, and the upper reaches of French Creek in Berks and Chester Counties. The goals are to:

  • Identify at least 50 landowners of critical land parcels in Chester County who are eligible for existing county preservation programs, and conduct outreach designed to elicit 20 applications to preservation funding programs and an equal number for implementing best management practices.
  • Establish a preservation program in Berks County with grant funds providing incentives to landowners, generate a landowner list and conduct outreach designed to elicit 10 applications.
  • Conduct five workshops for large property land managers, municipalities and residents to demonstrate beneficial land management, stewardship and preventative measures on varying property types, including residential and public lands. Themes such as wildlife benefits, long-term cost savings and aesthetic appeal will be emphasized on both residential and public lands.
  • Use GIS-computer modeling to produce analytic tools that provide insight on watershed stressors, support conservation scenario investigations and predict long-term outcomes.

Monitoring and Measurement

A rigorous water-quality monitoring program will help determine if conservation/restoration programs are producing the intended outcomes. The key water-quality indicators selected for monitoring include macro-invertebrates and freshwater mussels; chloride, conductivity and acidity; total phosphate; nitrate and dissolved oxygen; and suspended solids. Sampling in the headwaters will also monitor bacteria levels including fecal coliforms. GIS modeling will integrate weather, land-use and stream-sampling data to identify variables that account for year-to-year fluctuations.


Timeline and Investment

As of January 2014, estimated costs to protect critical landscapes, build constituencies and monitor impacts were approximately $14 million over the next three years, with land protection constituting $11 million and monitoring, municipal assistance and other outreach and coordination totaling $3 million. Work began in 2014 with $1.7 million in grants from the William Penn Foundation with additional support available through competitive re-grant funds for land protection.

Total investment needs through 2017: $14 Million