With stream huggers to the rescue, Jenkintown Creek flowing toward healthy future

Teacher Jennifer Tanay (center) and McKinley Elementary 5th graders from her Roots and Shoots environmental club (from left: Dylan Britt, Steven Thai and Iris Winegrad) explore a section of Jenkintown Creek on school grounds that they helped revitalize.

When Jennifer Tanay began teaching gifted students at McKinley Elementary School in Elkins Park six years ago, she was immediately drawn to the 410-foot stretch of Jenkintown Creek that borders school property and its densely wooded banks.

She asked principal Charles W. Lentz for a guided tour. “Oh, gosh, it was jungle-like, overridden with vines and invasive plants and thorny bushes," she recalled. "But I saw the possibilities right away. I thought we should be using the woods and creek for environmental education.”

Green-minded McKinley, a K-6 school of about 700 students, already had a parklike garden with trees, flowers, and vegetables planted by the children and their parents, and birdhouses made from the gourds they grew there. So Lentz needed no convincing about the educational value of out-of-classroom experiences.

Tanay started a before-school Roots and Shoots environmental club for 25 fifth and sixth graders, and began meeting at the creek, where the kids created journals from a frog’s-eye or bird’s-eye point of view. “I grew up in Abington,” Tanay said, “playing in creeks and looking for snakes under the rocks in the Briar Bush Nature Center and Alverthorpe Park. Put me in the woods, I’m totally fine with that. I wanted McKinley School to be the Briar Bush on this side of the Abington School District.”

It’s well on its way. The Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF), a conservation nonprofit, is rebuilding Jenkintown Creek's long-neglected, eroded banks, then planting hundreds of native trees and shrubs along them to filter out stormwater pollutants —fertilizer, pesticides, oil, grease — from nearby lawns and parking lots before they damage the stream.

Funded in large part by the William Penn Foundation since 2014, TTF and its hundreds of child and adult volunteers have planted an 850-foot buffer of native trees and shrubs along the creek from the headwaters at Abington Friends School down through the adjoining Abington Monthly Meeting property. They’ve also planted a stormwater-absorbing, pollutant-filtering rain garden at each site, for a total cost of $171,100.

TTF creek-huggers planted a tree-and-shrub barrier and a rain garden at the Sisters of St. Basil convent ($67,000) and a 270-foot buffer at Ethel Jordan Memorial Park, where the $128,000 project will soon include a rain garden, a bioswale (a shallow, grassy depression that captures and filters stormwater), and stream bank stabilization.

The partnership's latest project is the just-completed, $51,000 Jenkintown Creek makeover at McKinley. The school’s students, teachers, and parents, and TTF volunteers planted 240 trees and shrubs in a 20,000-square-foot buffer, and stabilized the eroded stream banks with coconut husk matting. Once they cleared out the nearly impenetrable jungle of thorny invasive vegetation, creek workers were delighted to discover a small vernal pool, which they expanded into a seasonal wetland.

The vernal pool fills with water in the spring, then dries up, creating a unique wet/dry habitat where several species of salamanders and frogs begin life. Tanay hopes her students get to see them soon.

On a recent Jenkintown Creek salamander safari,  Roots and Shoots fifth graders Dylan Britt, Steven Thai, Iris Winegrad, and Patrick Delaney, each 11, saw a bullfrog, a worm, a water strider, and lots of creek chub minnows. They fished out and bagged plastic bottles.

In the near future, Tanay hopes to set up two wildlife web cameras. She'd put one in a hollowed-out tree, so students visiting a website would be able to see "whatever shows up — foxes, owls, bats, possums, frogs, garter snakes, box turtles, deer, squirrels, chipmunks.”

TTF’s Jenkintown Creek makeover is dramatic from Abington Friends School to McKinley Elementary, but Julie Slavet, its 59-year-old executive director, with the energy and purple-streaked hair of a gung-ho teenager, isn’t satisfied.

Standing on a rock in the middle of Jenkintown Creek at Ethel Jordan Memorial Park, less than a mile from McKinley, she pulled up a dead branch that had trapped plastic bottles and other debris.

She stared into the dark void of an old stone culvert, which for years has carried stormwater draining off Cadwalader Avenue directly into the creek. The torrent hits the opposite bank with such force that it has washed away most of the soil and all of the vegetation.

“The bottom of the creek shouldn’t be brown like this,” Slavet said. “It should be rocks and gravel, not erosion sediment. There should be algae, bugs, more of a water flow. The last time I saw a healthy creek was in Virginia. There were fish, algae. I kicked over a rock and there was a bug under it. Here, there are leeches.”

Slavet said TTF is ready to rebuild the eroded bank and divert the pollutant-carrying stormwater into a rain garden, away from the stream. She won’t rest until she can kick over a rock and find beneath it a happy invertebrate in a creek flowing toward a healthy future.