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The Brandywine Valley Association restores local waterways like no other.

Main Line Today
March 26, 2009

Centuries ago, the Vikings used to shout angrily at their ales in an effort to wake up the spirit within. Thankfully, that’s no longer in vogue. But today’s brewers still employ the same four primary ingredients—barley, hops, yeast and water—that make up every mug of beer poured.

Water might seem unimportant to the brewing process, but it’s not. Essentially, 90 percent of beer is comprised of it. And without great water, you can’t make great beer.

Over at Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Prima Pils has long been recognized for its true German character and firm, hoppy bite. Last summer, in an issue of ForbesLife magazine, Prima Pils was saluted as one of the finest “cold beers you could love,” alongside a cluster of Euro brands. Victory’s water-use ratio is 7:1—that’s the total volume used for each volume of beer produced. They get their water from the east branch of the Brandywine Creek (or river), and the quality continues to improve. For that, they have the Brandywine Valley Association’s extensive watershed restoration efforts to thank.

The BVA gives its 800 members and crowds of volunteers the opportunity to clean up local waterways. And the hands-on scientific research involved has turned many of them into creek advocates and activists.

Victory is helping to create greater awareness by partnering with the BVA on the Brandywine Hills Point-to-Point steeplechase races scheduled for April 5, as well as a September music festival held at the Myrick Conservation Center outside West Chester.

“We’re all seeing the great improvement,” says Bill Covelski, president and co-founder of Victory. “The public acceptance of our products is a reflection of the pure water we use. The quality and accessibility to that water was key in our decision to locate here.”

Water is our single most important resource, and it’s usually taken for granted. When it’s clean, it’s the cornerstone of healthy communities. Its value and importance to people, plants, fish and wildlife are impossible to overstate.

A watershed is a land area that collects or stores water and drains it into a stream, river, estuary or ocean. Imagine a drop of water falling from the sky. It falls on a hill, then flows down, eventually ending up at the point of lowest elevation, filtering into the ground or flowing into a body of water—in this case, Brandywine Creek.

If you live in the Brandywine watershed, you probably get your drinking water from an underground well that taps an aquifer deep below the surface. Otherwise, your water comes from pipes underground that begin at a water treatment facility, which gets its water from Brandywine Creek and underground sources.

Rich in cultural and historical heritage, Brandywine Creek has long played a key role in the economic development and quality of life in Chester and New Castle counties. The 60-mile stream is the primary water source for residential and commercial use in communities like Coatesville, Downingtown, West Chester and Wilmington. It also offers residents and visitors alike ideal spots to fish for rainbow trout, small- and large-mouth bass, bluegill and carp. It’s also a popular haven for those who enjoy canoeing, sailing, swimming or simply taking in the waterway’s natural beauty.

BVA member Fred Smith of Downingtown helped organize a spring creek clean-up with 25-30 employees from Arcelor-Mittal, the world’s leading steel company. In two years, the debris they collected filled one-and-a-half large dumpsters over a 1-mile stretch near its plant in Coatesville.

“Many of the volunteers were here both years, so they were amazed to see the difference the second year,” says Smith. “Some were serious fishermen, so they know firsthand the improvements of the water quality.”

Others enjoyed the beauty of canoeing on a summer day, recalls Smith. “Many brought their teenage kids, so we were able to build knowledge for future generations,” he says.

In March 1945, 30 people from the West Chester and Wilmington areas turned up to listen to a man named Clayton Hoff speak about Brandywine Creek. What they heard was alarming. In many spots, the creek was little more than an open sewer, the result of wastewater being dumped into the stream with little or no treatment. In addition, thousands of tons of soil were being washed into the Brandywine—choking aquatic life and impacting water quality.

Recognizing that such threats could pose permanent damage, the Brandywine Valley Association was launched, becoming the first small watershed association in America. Today, under the leadership of executive director Bob Struble, the nonprofit organization continues to protect the picturesque and productive Brandywine Creek.

“Getting community members more involved in the health of local watersheds is what the BVA is all about,” Struble says. “A large component of our job is educating the public as to the dos and don’ts.”

In the 1940s, under the guidance of Struble’s father, Robert Struble Sr., the BVA’s first decade focused on improving soil conservation practices that had a significant impact on reducing erosion, a major problem for the Brandywine. Back in the mid-1950s, BVA initiated the Watershed Work Plan for flood control and water supply.

These days, the plan includes five flood and water supply structures, including Chambers Lane on the west branch of the Brandywine, Marsh Creek Reservoir, and three others on the west branch. They’ve repeatedly shown their value during floods and droughts over the years.

BVA was a leader in recycling programs in the 1970s and pioneered the first land application system for treated effluent, thus removing contaminants from waste water. Today, land application is an accepted practice that helps improve surface water quality, recharge ground water and preserve open space.

“People need to realize this isn’t just for us, but for future generations,” Struble says. “We don’t really own the water, the soil, the trees, the wildlife. We simply have use of them for our lifetimes, and then we pass them on.”

It’s everybody’s back yard, Struble adds. “Their roofs, driveways and lawns are the greatest source of storm-water runoff that pollutes the waterways. Too much fertilizer and pet waste are major culprits,” he explains. “We have innovative programs and ideas that people can take advantage of so these pollutants are minimized when they reach our streams.”

One solution is a rain garden. Its native flowers, grasses, bushes and trees attract the butterflies, frogs, turtles, toads and birds that depend on them for their food and shelter. Planting a modest rain garden in your back yard helps lock water in the ground, reducing the flow of pollutants and poisons into drains. Using organic fertilizers and pesticides further protects and brings health to the yard and all the species living there.

When the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection evaluated all the streams in the watershed, it discovered that nearly 21 percent of the stream miles didn’t conform to state standards. A restoration initiative known as Red Streams Blue was introduced by the BVA in 2007, with a nearly $1 million budget over three years.

Impaired streams are highlighted on state maps as red streams; those that meet the criteria are shaded in blue. Simply put, blue streams are swimmable, fishable and drinkable.

To achieve that goal for all streams, the BVA assesses the conditions—that is, types of insect larvae living in the stream, bank conditions, growth of trees along the stream, and the habitat that punctuates the waterline. After a detailed study of each stream, a comprehensive restoration plan is developed that will minimize the impact and improve water quality.

It’s all a major focus of the organization’s Make a Splash Campaign, which raised $2.2 million through the end of last year. The $3.2 million project, which runs through 2010, also includes a capital improvement element for work at BVA headquarters, as well as increasing endowments so the organization can continue its programs.

The Brandywine Hills Point-to-Point celebrates both the coming of spring and a rich Chester County steeplechasing tradition. Set in the rolling hills between Unionville and West Chester, the races have raised $15,000-$20,000 annually over the past five years.

Carl “Bunny” Meister has been linked with the races since 1961, when he first started hunting with the Brandywine foxhound club. Chairman of the Brandywine Hills Point-to-Point since 1973, he’s been a BVA board member for 20 years.

“No other clean-water program in the country is like ours, going from a detailed analysis of each stream to a comprehensive restoration plan,” Meister says. “Our mission is to be proactive, but we’re really careful to call upon science to understand all the facts before we make a decision.”

Meister points to Chester County’s equine community as one of the most environmentally friendly groups in the region. “Horse farms are good neighbors because they maintain their environment well,” he says. “They use a lot of water and typically practice smart water usage. There’s a strong tie between open space and water management.”

Just a short canter from the Point-to-Point race grounds is the Myrick Conservation Center. A unique outdoor teaching facility, it reinforces classroom lessons that reached nearly 12,000 elementary and middle school students last year through hands-on exercises and field experiences. Among the activities in its summer camp program: water exploration, canoeing, fishing, birding, archery, Native American games and storytelling.

“Each program focuses on a particular theme, but all children leave with a better understanding of—and appreciation for—the natural world,” says Struble. “It’s one week of camp, but the lessons will last a lifetime.”

 

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