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Q&A: Past president of Swatara Watershed Association reflects on 30 years of service

  • Rachel McDevitt
Quittapahilla Creek, seen here in Annville on Oct. 19, 2021, is a tributary to Swatara Creek.

Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Quittapahilla Creek, seen here in Annville on Oct. 19, 2021, is a tributary to Swatara Creek.

The Swatara Watershed covers 570 square miles of the midstate.

It serves a lot of people. Three companies pull water from the system to provide drinking water.

With so much depending on it, the watershed needs people to serve it, too.

Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz is one of them. She recently stepped down as president of the Swatara Watershed Association after more than 30 years.

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Rachel McDevitt spoke with her over Zoom about her work over the decades.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What first got you interested in working with the watershed association?

There was a landfill that wanted to locate near our headwaters in Schuylkill County. We were trying to get Swatara State Park done and we were working on cleaning up coal from past generations. And so we were very upset when there was a landfill that wanted to locate. We made around a dozen trips to the courthouse in Schuylkill County to listen to testimony from all kinds of expert witnesses and attorneys. I think it was my informal formal education on clean water.

And did you succeed in getting the landfill moved?

So one of the life lessons that I learned was when you go to court … you don’t always get your own way. Rule number one: you have to be willing to negotiate and compromise. And that’s basically what happened with the landfill. It still went in. It’s one of those things that I guess they had the property rights … but we also had rights as citizens to voice our opinion.

Why is the watershed so important to you?

I was a child and I learned about both clean water and dirty water and that’s all I knew. My father would take me trout fishing. So I learned what clean water was about because, to support trout – I didn’t know this at the time, but – you have to have high oxygen level. And you will have things like stonefly, caddisfly, mayfly, that they can eat off the stream bed and it’s a good diet for them.

Courtesy Jo Ellen Litz

Jo Ellen Litz recently stepped down as president of the Swatara Watershed Association.

My mother would take me swimming … and a day or two after I would be swimming, I felt hurt in my skin; sometimes on my forearms, and sometimes in my ears, sometimes on the back of my calves. It would erupt into a boil, multiple boils. It was many years later… that I learned about pig farms and the manure can pollute the water. Well sure enough, there was a pig farm at the headwaters to Lyons Lake. So all of these things in my childhood were experiences that I didn’t know were embedded within me to make me passionate about clean water.

This entire watershed covers at least parts of four counties: Schuylkill, Berks, Lebanon and Dauphin, and it runs 71 miles in length over 570 square miles. We have three water companies drawing water from the Swatara Creek: the Lebanon Water Authority, which is in Schuylkill County, and then we have PA American Water Company in Dauphin County, and also down further near the end we have now Suez Water Company.

What projects would you say had some of the greatest impact?

Mackin Engineering helped us create this rivers conservation plan. From that, we identify projects and prioritize them. And high up there was a– believe it or not– a water trail. A water trail is connecting the communities, it gets people out on the water experiencing what clean water is like, or seeing problems that need to be cleaned up. But it’s a unifying factor. Once you’re on the water, you feel like you’re in a frontier, like a wilderness because you don’t know where you are.

The water trail itself is 60 miles long. We added the litter cleanups and we pulled tons of trash and tires out of Swatara Creek. We’d get Boy Scout troops and Girl Scout troops.

We’d find appliances and things and then I’d mark on a map where they were and we call the landfill and say hey, this is over the bank at this location. And they had the resources…somehow they got them out.

Do you think making that connection, making the water accessible to people helps get them invested in that clean water?

Bingo, you hit the nail on the head. When you feel the warmth of the sun, the drizzle of the rain on your cheeks and you smell the honeysuckle or the pine trees you’re floating through…whatever you see, you take it all in and you’re learning.

They become stewards. They become advocates, they become voices and very vocal when they see something that’s not right.

It all starts with involving children and having these programs that they can become educated and take over. It’s their water we’re protecting because they’re our future. So, now they are the ones that are going to have to teach the following generations.

What challenges are still ahead for those working in the Swatara Watershed?

Lebanon County … is the second fastest growing county in the whole state. We have lots of massive warehouses … one after the other. And we have the interstates – 81,78, the turnpike. So, we have all these massive developments which creates massive water runoff. Even though they have retention basins, when we get floods, they’re not big enough. And that’s a real problem.

How has the work you’ve done as president set them up to meet those challenges?

There are so many challenges. It’s not just the quality of water, but the quantity of water. Those two have got to be uppermost in everyone’s mind. When it comes to setting up for future generations, one of the things we did was work with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, who regulates the amount of water withdrawal in the basin, so that hopefully we don’t run out.

This Swatara Water Trail is so important, and now we have a rail trail going north to south and from Bunker Hill all the way up through Swatara State Park. They will parallel each other going up, so hikers will see people paddling, paddlers will be seeing people hiking and biking along the rail trail. We have set people up for future recreation. We have planned generations ahead.

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