The Lehigh River is one of our region’s great natural treasures. It’s also a water source for some of our customers. It stretches more than 100 miles from Wayne County in the Poconos until it merges with the Delaware River in Easton. Its name comes from the Lenape word “Lechewuekink,” which meant “where there are forks” — like the spot where the Lehigh and Delaware rivers come together.
The river has been many things to many people. For the Lenape, it was a source of food and a way to travel. Shad once thrived in its waters, which were clean and unchecked.
When the Europeans arrived, however, they used the river to build the region’s industries — coal, steel, lumber, cement and zinc. They erected dams and shipped their products down the river, but the river often claimed the barges that carried their goods. Coal spills once regularly choked the river. Mines drained into the river as well, acidifying the water and adding heavy metals and other toxins. The river was also used to dump industrial waste. In the mid 1960s, a water quality test found aquatic life almost nonexistent in a large stretch of the river. Shad, which need cold, unchecked water to spawn, had vanished.
Thankfully, efforts to clean up the mess have changed the river’s fortunes for the better. The Clean Water Act put the binders on industrial waste that had flowed unchecked into the river. Private and public conservation groups have shined a spotlight on the Lehigh’s plight and helped protect not only the river, but the land around it. In 2007, the Lehigh — cleaner than it had been in decades — was named a state Scenic River, a designation that limits development along the Lehigh’s banks. In 2010, 2,650 acres were protected when they were added to the Lackawanna State Forest. The shad are back — albeit in limited numbers — and these days, eagles nest along the river’s banks.
The river still needs our help, however. Pollution is always a threat, and, upstream, there are a few abandoned mines that drain into the Lehigh. Runoff from farms, lawns, and storm drains carries contaminants as well.
If you’re a property owner or farmer, establish a buffer zone to keep pollutants out of the water. You can also join a number of groups dedicated to river’s preservation, such as The Lehigh River Stocking Association, The Wildlands Conservancy and the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley.