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Group 2 Delaware River Watershed Initiative


Upper Lehigh

The Lehigh River is the second largest body of water that feeds into the Delaware River, and the Upper Lehigh Cluster encompasses the northern half of this watershed–covering 765-square-miles, six counties, 53 municipalities and more than 170,000 acres of protected land.

The Lehigh River originates from glacial bogs deep in the Pocono Plateau and then winds its way 103 miles through Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley before connecting to the Delaware River in the city of Easton. The upper reach of the Lehigh is one of Pennsylvania’s official Scenic Rivers, and the Lehigh Gorge is renowned for its spectacular scenery and whitewater. Key tributaries of the Lehigh River such as Aquashicola Creek, Drakes Creek, Mud Run and others tend to flow along the folds of the Appalachian Mountains known as the Ridge and Valley province.

Valuable wetlands exist in this cluster, covering approximately 35,000 acres. This region, which has been a conservation priority for more than a century, contains some of the best forests and gamelands in the state. Over the past several decades, the Lehigh’s water quality has improved dramatically. Pennsylvania classifies more than 20 percent of stream miles in the Upper Lehigh as Exceptional-Value waters, and an additional 46 percent as High-Quality cold water fisheries. Approximately 400 miles of Class-A streams harbor self-sustaining trout populations. Seventeen stream miles in the cluster are classified as wilderness trout streams. Improved environmental conditions have provided people with new and ever-expanding opportunities to connect with the river, as evidenced by the number of rafting and paddling outfitters and charter fishing companies operating in the Upper Lehigh.

Drinking Water Source 180,000 People
Total Area 765 Sq. Mi.
Protected Land 27% Protected

Major Threats

Increasing Development
Poorly planned development has led to deforestation and degradation of streams and wetlands. Local officials may be unprepared in terms of land-use regulations, funding and staffing to protect the forests, streams and hillsides from inappropriate development.

Legacy Stream Alterations
The Upper Lehigh has more than 100 small dams that degrade the health of flowing-water ecosystems. The majority of the dams are obsolete and can be removed in a relatively simple and cost-effective process. Re-establishing riparian buffers would also improve water quality as well as aquatic and terrestrial habitats.

Why it’s Important

The Lehigh River supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people, and the abundant forests and wetlands of the Upper Lehigh are critical to protecting water quality and quantity in the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers. Excellent fishing areas and popular whitewater rapids bring substantial recreational and economic benefits to the region. There are 176 Natural Heritage Inventory sites in the Upper Lehigh Cluster that contain plants, animals and habitats at risk of local or global extinction. The cluster also contains four Important Bird Areas and five Important Mammal Areas.

Together these areas support species of concern and broad expanses of natural ecosystems that protect Pennsylvania’s biodiversity. Forests and wetlands remain relatively abundant, but development has become a significant stressor. Poorly planned development has started to fragment the landscape, with negative implications for wildlife habitat, forest health and water quality. Deforestation is a major concern. A related stressor is the widespread impact of energy projects, such as new transmission lines and pipelines, on forests, streams and wetlands, as energy companies select routes to avoid population centers. For example, the potential construction of a major (230 kV) transmission line in the Upper Lehigh River watershed would clear-cut a 150-foot-wide corridor through more than 20 miles of forested lands, across the Lehigh River and 27 headwater streams.

Dams have also degraded some in-stream habitat. At least 103 dams have been identified along upper tributaries, the vast majority of which no longer serve any purpose. These dams result in increased water temperature and sediment, decreased dissolved oxygen and degraded habitat where fish live and spawn.

What We Can Do

This plan addresses the stressors of development and legacy stream alterations (dams) through a variety of projects that include land preservation, outreach to municipal and county officials, and stream-corridor restoration. The land-conservation goals of the plan include permanent protection of about 88 square miles that include 110 linear miles of Exceptional-Value and High-Quality streams. The Initiative organizations anticipate that this critical mass of conservation, combined with stream-corridor restoration projects, will measurably improve quality in impaired streams.

The priority areas for this cluster include a large forested area centered on the Mud Run watershed that connects Hickory Run State Park with State Game Lands 127. Two additional priority areas for protection include an approximately 90-square-mile area centered on Bear Creek that abuts State Game Lands 91 and 119, and approximately 35 square miles around Wild Creek. In the northeastern region of the cluster the focus rests on the Tobyhanna and Tunkhannock watersheds and the headwaters of the Lehigh River. The final target is a large tract of contiguous forest that covers an 18-square-mile area along the Kittatinny Ridge and includes substantial areas of Lizard Creek and Aquashicola Creek.

The cluster organizations will:

  • Protect priority parcels of land through fee-simple acquisition, conservation easements, or long-term protection via incentive programs such as the USDA’s Forest Legacy program or The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands program.
  • Pursue dam removal and riparian buffer restoration to improve water quality and aquatic habitat.
  • Seek land protection agreements that conserve Exceptional Value and High Quality streams, wetlands, intact forests, and Natural Areas Inventory Sites, with emphasis on 21 high-priority parcels.
  • Complete pilot projects with municipalities to demonstrate the benefits that sound land-use planning can bring to communities.

Monitoring and Measurement

Monitoring will take place in partnership with faculty and students from Lehigh University and Moravian College. Pre- and post-restoration monitoring of stream restoration projects will include water chemistry (such as acidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, phosphates and nitrogen), physical habitat assessments, and benthic macro-invertebrate and fish community surveys. A database of protected lands and natural resources will chart progress towards land protections for forests, wetlands and waterways.


Timeline and Investment

As of January 2014, estimated costs to address the stressors, protect critical landscapes, build constituencies and monitor impacts totaled just over $26 million through 2017, including restoration totaling $415,000, land protection constituting $25.4 million, and monitoring and outreach totaling $400,000. Work began in 2014 with $1.2 million in grants from the William Penn Foundation with additional support available through competitive re-grant funds for land protection.