Keith Russell shouldn’t be out in this weather. The temperature at East Park Reservoir is a prickly 29 degrees and Russell, the outreach coordinator in Philadelphia for Audubon Pennsylvania, appears to have a punishing flu this morning. As I express concern before we begin our two hour hike there is a crackling in a nearby bush and Russell, an expert birder, turns his attention toward the lone dirt road that winds its way around the West Basin. “I’ll be fine once we get walking,” he says. Our companions on the walk, Katie Newsom Pastuszek, Outward Bound Philadelphia’s executive director and Nadia Stadnycki, the organization’s development director, join us a few minutes later after making their way up the broken blue bricked incline that leads into the wooded preserve.
We’ve all met at the West Basin–on the edges of Strawberry Mansion and in the center of East Fairmount Park–for a tour around the lake in this final winter before humans are reintroduced to the area. Work will begin this year on the Discovery Center, a 14,000 square foot educational hub for leadership training and environmental conservation. Audubon PA and Philadelphia Outward Bound School have worked tirelessly together for the last decade to establish what will preserve and utilize this unique urban wildlife ecosystem that has flourished, unimpeded by human interference, after being mostly abandoned for over 65 years. A milestone was reached this past July when the City officially leased the land to the partnership, making plans to finally reusing the basin a reality. The design phase of the center is nearing completion and construction is slated to begin this summer. The quiet days are numbered at the lake to be sure, but a permanent saving grace for the wildlife that has reclaimed the area has been confirmed.
The West Basin lake at East Park Reservoir is an accidental oasis. Hidden by an elevated street grade resembling a plateau and surrounded by a tall, barbed wire security fence, the 37 acre man-made lake was decommissioned in the 1950s when the population of the city went into dramatic decline and the need for water reserves dwindled. The whole facility is around 90 acres and was an engineering marvel when it was completed in 1889. It had the capacity to hold 700,000,000 gallons and was one of the largest of its kind with artificial banks. The reservoir drew its water from the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers which was pumped through pipes to the Queen Lane treatment plant. Open treated drinking water storage is no longer used–federal law now requires polypropylene covering—and the basins to the Northeast and South were eventually drained. By the early 1990s all but the Northeast basin, which is still in use today, were left to be reclaimed by nature.
Aided by the lake at West Basin, the publicly inaccessible land grew dense with trees and vegetation and prospered as an incidental urban sanctuary for wildlife. “The reality is the waterfowl have been using the basin since the 1950s,” says Russell, as he shares his binoculars, pointing out a hooded merganser about 50 yards past where we stand behind the safety fence that surrounds the lake. “It has become a pristine habitat. Along with the birds and foxes, in the lake there catfish, sunfish and perch. All native. They were piped in with the water. The area is totally reclaimed. We are actually going to be introducing people.” Winter has set in and traffic along the Atlantic Flyway has slowed since peak migration in October. The West Basin is a major nesting area for migratory birds making their way south down the eastern seaboard. As we continue deeper into the park we spot canvas backed and ruddy ducks, red-throated loons, and a pied billed grebe—just a few of the estimated 150 migratory birds that visit the reservoir every year. Our avian tour guides, a seemingly endless stream of blue jays, northern cardinals and other native songbirds, follow us along the way.
Russell and Audubon had been interested in preserving the reservoir since 2000 after noticing the heavy migration patterns around the West Basin some years prior. “We had a vision of the basin becoming a nature preserve,” says Russell. “It’s such a unique habitat. Our thought was, if an opportunity was ever presented to reuse the basin, we had to see it though.” Russell and Audubon PA asked the city to stop draining in the lake in late 1990s. Originally 20 feet of water, the lake now sits at around eight feet. Because of the significant water loss, aquatic vegetation has declined and ducks are not as numerous now. Russell says through conservation they hope to reverse the trend.
Everyone stops for a moment as Russell narrows his focus on what he believes is an Arctic goose alone in a flock of Canadians. As we squint our eyes in the direction of his binoculars, Pastuszek explains the origins of the partnership. “Talks about forming a relationship between Audubon and Outward Bound began around 2008,” she says. “We were looking for somewhere to eventually build a facility that will allow for more onsite programming. We had been shuffled around for a bit and eventually moved into the offices in Sedgley Porter House. We almost immediately ran out of space. We have 4,000 students and teachers and needed something bigger.”
Pastuszek says once construction is complete, Outward Bound Philadelphia’s headquarters will be housed inside the Discovery Center. Outdoor leadership training, campouts, and even building a dock are on the itinerary–canoe instruction and aquatic preparation for outdoor expeditions will take place on the lake. Other features will include hiking trails, a rope course, and multiple stations to view wildlife.
Leasing the West Basin from the City has been challenging. Along with PWD’s concerns about security near their still-active Northeast drinking water storage, the land is owned by the City Department of Parks and Recreation and petitioning for private us of public land creates layers of red tape. Consistent limited access to the site for both organizations has further complicated the process. Letting go of security is something that the Water Department remains hesitant about, says Pastuszek. “There had been some deaths [before PWD closed the area off to the public in the 1980s],” she says. “The fence around the lake will be removed, but the reservoir’s perimeter gate will remain and there will still be controlled access to the site. The public will be able to use both the building and the planned trail network for free, but there will be set hours of operation.”
We pause for a moment; a perfect spot to take in the West Basin’s view of the city skyline. A natural silence falls between the four of us and we grow comfortably quiet. Gearing up for departure, it becomes evident how enchanting this little-known urban oasis is and we break silence. A smile is shared between us and we all nod our heads. “It’s a truly special place,” offers Pastuszek. “We are honored to become its keepers for the next 40 years.” Almost on cue Stadnycki’s phone rings and there’s an important call that needs to be taken back at the office. Our busy lives beckon. Farewells are exchanged, though Russell and I, not ready to leave the spell of the basin quite yet, agree to hike on for a bit.