By Diana Hatfield, Baker Creek Watershed Association
It was not a problem until the early 1800’s. Baker Creek wound its way from the headwaters to Lake Erie with a steady flow and seasonal surges. As the Borough of North East developed around it, with the removal of trees, shrubs and grasses in the drainage basin modifying the storage of water, the flow decreased. In those early days, the settlers found the creek flow insufficient to satisfy their requirements, so the upper drainage area of another creek was diverted to flow into Baker Creek. It was a common practice for early settlers to modify the existing water resources to satisfy their needs. This effort was also supported for fire protection. Before the creek was diverted, a structure that caught fire was almost always allowed to burn, with efforts only made to rescue tenants, salvage belongings, and to prevent the fire from involving nearby buildings.
By 1850 the Borough of North East had 387 people, along with their accompanying sewage, animals, manure, and garbage. The creek flowed through mid-community absorbing the materials, but by 1873 the council began to apply penalties to anyone depositing materials in the creek. The installation of a sewer system at the beginning of the 20th century effectively ended the problem with sewage, but the use of Baker Creek for disposal of other waste materials continues today.
The Baker Creek Watershed Association was formed in 1999, with the help of a Pennsylvania Growing Greener grant. Comprised of a cross-section of the community’s 4600 residents, the group was interested in protecting the tributaries that flow into Lake Erie, especially Baker Creek, which bisects the downtown and abuts backyards, businesses, parking lots, state highways, and railroad tracks. Starting with a creek cleanup in May, 2000, the group began attracting attention to the importance of protecting this neglected waterway. The first cleanup netted tons of trash, including lockers, furniture, building materials, shopping carts, and tires. Annually, more than 50 people turn out to police the creek. Trash accumulation has decreased dramatically.
A brochure was developed and distributed to residents and businesses bordering the creek, encouraging the development of natural riparian buffers, and explaining the importance of the proper disposal of “natural” materials like grass clippings, leaves, sticks, and snow. A storm stenciling program was funded and initiated with the assistance of the local high school ecology club.This seemingly small project had an enormous educational impact – it seems that a surprisingly large number of the residents thought that the storm sewers drained to the sewage treatment plant. By labeling the storm grate with DO NOT DUMP; DRAINS TO LAKE ERIE, the amount of dumping decreased immediately.
By now the group was ready to attack a major project – the municipal parking lot located in the center of town, behind the Main Street businesses. The parking lot is a completely impervious 39,000 square feet of crumbling patchwork, concrete and asphalt, running right up to the creek. Rainwater from all the surrounding roofs drains onto the lot, flushing all the contaminants and pollutants directly into the water. It is unsightly, impractical, and an environmental disaster. The storm surges contribute to downstream erosion, and the lack of ground-water recharge creates an unstable flow.
Through a series of grants, the Baker Creek Watershed and the Borough of North East developed a workable design incorporating infiltration galleys, permeable pavement areas, and landscaping. Storm water will be directed underground to the galleys, where it will be filtered and retained, thus increasing ground water recharge. The parking areas will use a porous pavement surface which will reduce or eliminate puddling, and will help to keep automobile contaminants out of the waterway. The landscaping will provide additional permeable surfaces as well as sheltering the creek from hot summer sun. When completed, the environmental improvements will be significant, if invisible. The visual improvement will be dramatic, opening rear facades for customers’ use and creating a pleasant, creekside area for patrons of nearby restaurants and the Cultural Center. This project is scheduled for 2004, and the entire community will be watching an eyesore turn into an asset and an environmental success.