Is it Safe to Swim in the Wissahickon?
Creek check: are rising temps luring you into the Wissahickon Creek? You should read this.
During a “normal” year in June, local residents can look forward to cooling down in one of the city’s public pools, an oasis for those feeling the brunt of the urban heat island effect.
Unfortunately, Philadelphians do not have that option, since pools will not be opening this summer.
It’s understandable, it doesn’t make it any less devastating for those in search of a place to beat the heat. Although the Center for Disease Control does not cite water as a vector of COVID-19, the inevitable crowds public pools draw makes them both impractical and impossible to operate safely during this time.
Plus,the city’s cooling centers (libraries, recreation centers etc.) which once served as places of refuge for vulnerable residents in the heat. However as we enter the “green phase” this is subject to change.
As alternatives to pools, closing these spaces can create considerable public health implications for low income neighborhoods that fewer trees and green spaces, and higher asthma rates.
This has people looking for alternative “bathing holes” to cool down in, creating a whole other slew of issues.
For those visiting Wissahickon Valley Park, the picturesque creek flowing alongside it may look as inviting to overheated bikers and runners. As the summer heat intensifies, it makes going for a dip in the Wiss look even better.
But is it even an option?
Is the Wissahickon creek actually swimmable?
The short answer is no.
Swimming in the creek is prohibited, according to both rules from the Friends of the Wissahickon, the steward organization overseeing the 1,800-acre park. City laws also state that “Philadelphia’s rivers and streams are not designated swimming areas, and swimming and bathing are not permitted outside of organized events”.
The state determines whether the non-pools are “swimmable”, a term that relies on the absence of certain pollutants and toxins in the water on any given day. States create standards specific to their own counts of E. coli. E.coli levels are subject to surges after heavy rainfall, which can overwhelm a city’s sewage treatment system, pushing untreated wastewater into the rivers and feeder bodies of water (i.e the Wissahickon creek). A cause for concern for those looking to swim there as Philadelphia has seen and will only continue to see increasing heavy rainfall.
For a list of all the actives you can do in the park check out Friends of the Wissahickon site.
Additional Factors to Consider
To find out more, I spoke with the Friends of the Wissahickon Exec. Director Ruffian Tittman to get a better understanding of what visitors should consider before interacting with the creek. Tittmann suggests visitors know what type of landscape they are dealing with before engaging in any risky behavior:
“Things to know about the Wissahickon, it’s 1800 acres of forested land, and so the terrain doesn’t lend itself well to high quality cellphone connectivity…people should go into the Wissahickon thinking “well I’m expecting to have this glorious day but if something goes wrong, what am I gonna do if I’m out in this space and have an emergency?”
While it’s not completely rural, it is still something visitors should think about as help may not be as accessible in the event its needed.
Tittman urges people to “really [think] about these flowing bodies of water as a risk, there’s places in the creek that you think are shallow that are much deeper, and there are places that are really deep that are not deep as you think they are”.
However, water depth isn’t the only hazard. Tittmann says “It’s not the Caribbean with crystal clear blue water, so there’s a lot of things you can’t see; really big submerged trees, rocks, who knows. Everything flows down, and we’re the last seven miles of this creek so who knows what’s in there”.
“I’d say it’s especially dangerous, in addition to diving into water you don’t know, to dive into areas around the dams because that force creates a churn that can be very hard to break out of even for an experience swimmer”.
And not all potential threats are inanimate, Tittmann informed me that “All over Philadelphia’s creeks we’re seeing a return of beavers and a mama beaver does not want you, or your child, or your dog coming near her babies. So you might get nipped” Tittmann also mentions water snakes and fish.
Clear doesn’t necessarily mean *clean*
“In late summer of a dry year, as much as 95% of the water in the creek is treated sewage from the seven treatment plants upstream in Montgomery County,” according to the Friends of Wissahickon site.
The Wissahickon Watershed itself expands across 64 square miles, beginning underneath the parking lot of a shopping mall in Montgomery County and then flows through 15 developed suburban and urban municipalities.
The last 7 miles of the 27 mile creek follows the Wissahickon trail along Lincoln Drive, and then abruptly dumps into the Schuylkill just over Kelly drive, making it just one of the many tributaries that feeds into the (previously) pollution-notorious Delaware River.
This means the creek is not a sterile body of water by any means, aside from its relationship to the Schuylkill there are ever present bacteria and organisms that live there, whether they be the result of contamination or a naturally occurring process. It’s not a good idea to expose yourself to them.
The most common source of contamination for the creek is microbial pollution from sewage overflows, stormwater run-off pulling gasoline, fertilizers, animal-waste and other pollutants from Lincoln drive and other nearby roads into the water.
The creek’s water quality is also affected greatly by heavy rainfall. When you’re out by a stream or river after a storm you can see the cloudiness and brownish color it takes on, a direct result of an increase in not only water, but all of those aforementioned pollutants. And while it may look pristine, the last comprehensive water quality test was done over a decade ago.
Featured Photo by R. Kennedy