It never rains at Musikfest?
This summer and early August, Allentown saw tornado and flash flood warning alerts as the east coast was hit by storms, heavy rain, and hail. Musikfest was stopped midway and postponed due to the sudden storming. Due to severe summer weather, “it never rains at Musikfest”, the festival’s annually repeated motto, is becoming increasingly refuted through its 38 years.
Musikfest’s weather disruption is a part of the increasing environmental impact of rains and other environmental extremes that Allentown and the Lehigh Valley have encountered due to climate change. As the planet warms, extreme weather patterns are more likely to be seen which means more flooding instead of the occasional or lack of rain that Musikfest has boasted in the past.
More flood warnings were sent out to Lehigh Valley on the light snow and then rain that covered Allentown during the first weekend of December. Roads were closed down and creeks as well as the Lehigh River were overflowed with water, just barely reaching their flooding stages.
The asphalt that paves roads and highways throughout Allentown is replacing the plants and soil that otherwise would absorb the water that ended up flooding the roads during that December rain. Materials like concrete and asphalt are called ‘impervious surfaces’ because water is not able to soak through them and instead slides off into the river, polluting it, disrupting it, and flooding it.
The stretches of asphalt of the Northeast Extension of the Turnpike is an impervious surface. In fact, the recent widening of I-476 is resulting in an increase in two paved lanes in either direction– a lot of asphalt in place of plants and soil. Along with the major widening of the Northeast Extension, millions of square feet of open areas of trees, grass, and dirt in the Lehigh Valley are currently being replaced with warehouses and impervious surfaces like concrete or asphalt. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, who reviews proposals for land use, reports that over 4.2 million square feet of warehouse space was approved in 2022 and they estimate that the total amount of warehouse space proposed or approved in the area from 2017 through 2022 totals 21.5 million square feet. This is a lot of additional impervious surfaces.
“The biggest threat to the Lehigh River is irresponsible large-scale development across the watershed, not just along the banks of the river,” says Donna Kohut, the Campaign Manager of the Delaware River Basin, who understands the workings of watersheds and aquatic ecosystems, including the Lehigh River. “The Monocacy Creek watershed has been hit maybe the hardest by warehouse development, and we see the impacts to it every day.” A sort of direct butterfly effect can be seen from the increase in impervious surfaces, even when they are not directly next to the river, and the increase in flooding and runoff, “There’s a park with a culvert that goes under route 22, which I think was built decades ago and needs to be repaired. The culvert is literally funneling so much stormwater runoff that it’s about three feet deep and probably about four feet wide. And so when there is a large rain event that hits the properties on the other side of the culvert, which right now are basically almost entirely warehouses, it sheds off quickly and that inundates that part of the Monocacy with that sediment.” This flow of water has changed the shape of the channel, Kohut explains, which affects the aquatic wildlife such as the trout, and important fish population for our state.
This excess runoff impacts watersheds, an area of land that receives and drains rain water through wetlands, streams, and creeks into a large river, bay, or lake, like how the Monocacy Creek connects to the Lehigh River. When it rains, water washes over everything, from grass to concrete, and makes its way to the watershed’s creeks and rivers, carrying with it chemicals, salt, pollution, and sediment. Plants in watershed increase filtration and prevents contaminants from entering our river. However, with an increase in the development that replaces grass with concrete and asphalt, comes an decrease in water quality. This is why Kohut advocated for Lehigh River to be on American Rivers’ 2023 list of endangered rivers–the increase in warehouses and destruction of green space that would be able to act as a filter hurts the river’s ecology.
The water runoff containing these pollutants that eventually ends up in the Lehigh River also impacts Allentown’s drinking water because it comes from the Little Lehigh Creek and the Lehigh River. Water is considered a closed system, so all the pollutants from water that flows off of highways and eventually downhill from warehouses or any stretch of impervious surface eventually ends up as drinking water, after getting treated in Allentown’s water treatment plant. Water that is used at home in Allentown, from the tap, the shower, toilet, and drinking water comes from either Little Lehigh Creek or the Lehigh River.
Lehigh Valley News posted an article analyzing the Lehigh Valley Quality of Life Survey this past summer. The survey showed that almost half of residents of Lehigh and Northampton counties are concerned about the loss of open space, but only 14% are concerned about water quality. The ever visible construction of warehouse development is part of the invisible destruction of the Lehigh River, and as we continue to replace open, green space with warehouses and impervious surfaces, we will continue to damage our river. “We want to reduce or mitigate the flooding that we experience, especially in communities that are disproportionately impacted such as low income communities and communities of color,” says Kohut. “We need to do the work passing better ordinances and legislation to make sure development doesn’t continue harming our river.” Otherwise, flooding might become a regular part of life here in the Lehigh Valley. Kohut says the river is endangered, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond help. Protecting our watershed will not only prevent future flooding of events like Musikfest, but will also protect the health of an invaluable resource–our drinking water.