The River Today

Restored Lock 60

Dedication of Restored Lock 60, Mont Clare

The Schuylkill River today is a vital regional commons. Over 3.2 million people live within its watershed, and over 1.5 million people drink directly from the river or one of its tributaries. Millions more get their water from wells that are recharged by water that is filtered through the fields, streams, and forests surrounding the river. The protection of open space and agriculture, the revitalization of our communities and neighborhoods, and the education and interpretation of our rich and storied past is critical to the future of this region. Preserving and sharing our historic buildings and developing trails, parks, and other recreational opportunities help to make the region a wonderful place to live and a unique place to visit. The challenge of protecting this place is great, but there are many partners in effort.

A place of national significance

The Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area was created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1995 and the United States Congress in 2000. The Heritage Area is comprised of the entire Schuylkill River watershed in Schuylkill, Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties. A watershed is defined as a river or creek and all of the land area that drains into it. The Schuylkill River Heritage Area is over 1,700 square miles in area containing over 1.2 million acres. Nearly a third of the state's population lives within its boundaries and nearly 25% of the nation's population lives within a five-hour drive.

Mary Osilka

Schuylkill County artist Mary Osilka shows her grandson some of her Pysanky eggs
credit: Carrie Kline

The Schuylkill River was designated a National Heritage Area by Congress because the people, places, and events that happened here changed the course of American history. The Schuylkill played a particularly important role in the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Environmental Revolution. Physical reminders of our past like buildings, villages, folklore, and food traditions survive today. Thousands of historic buildings, landscapes, and viewsheds remain unchanged and well preserved throughout the region. Yet, it is the people who inhabit this place that make it truly unique. They give the buildings and the land a vitality that no museum, book, or website could ever dream of. Generations of families from around the world built their homes here, and many of the language, musical, and artistic traditions that they knew in "the Old Country" are alive and well here today. The fact that they live in the same houses, worship at the same churches, and farm the same fields that generations before them did is unique and demonstrates a close connection with culture and place. This is the American experience in all of its glory.

Housing Development

credit: Gerald S. Williams

A rapidly changing landscape

Like many places in America, the Schuylkill River Heritage Area is a rapidly suburbanizing region. Housing developments, commercial projects, and new roads are changing the way the region thinks, works, and looks. As the most densely populated region of Pennsylvania, the Heritage Area is faced with daily threats from overdevelopment, loss of critical wildlife habitat, the demolition of historic places, and the slipping away of the cultural traditions that make us unique. A 2003 study conducted by the Brookings Institution found that Pennsylvania was among the slowest states in overall population growth, but consumed more land than 44 other states. The conversion of farmland not only impacts the appearance of the land, but can have negative effects on taxes and traffic, and can strain local schools and emergency services. As people move from the small towns and large cities to new homes in suburban developments, historic buildings are often at risk, and many historic farms disappear with each new development.

Student Presentation

Local school students present information about protecting watersheds
credit: Daniel P. Creighton

Among the most critical impacts of unplanned development is the effect on the quality and quantity of drinking water. Nearly 10% of Pennsylvania's population relies on the Schuylkill River for all or part of their water. Rain water is filtered through forests and fields before entering the streams and creeks. This filtering process not only benefits the plants, but also allows the water to pick up important minerals, and to shed toxic chemicals picked up during evaporation. As open space is consumed for houses and roads, less and less land is available for water to recharge itself. Rain that falls on roads and sidewalks is frequently channeled directly to nearby streams, carrying with it oils, trash, and other chemicals deposited by man. The Philadelphia Water Department estimates that if land in Berks County is developed over the next 25 years at the density which Montgomery County developed of the past 25 years, the Schuylkill River could be lost as a viable source of drinking water.

Partnerships for the future

That is not to say that development and growth are bad. Population growth and economic development are essential to the region's vitality. How we grow and what pieces of our past we choose to take with us for the future are critical questions that we must ask of ourselves right now before the opportunity passes us by. Protecting our environment, revitalizing our towns and cities, and retaining those parts of our past and present that make this region unique requires the work of many partners. Land and watershed conservancies throughout the Heritage Area work everyday to protect our drinking water and open space. Community Development Corporations build trails, promote local businesses, and host event and activities for us to enjoy as neighbors. Historical societies, historic preservation organizations, and cultural organizations advocate everyday for those places and traditions that make us unique.