American Rivers, a national nonprofit aimed at protecting waterways, has named the Lehigh as one of its top 10 most endangered rivers in 2023 because of the explosive growth in the past few years of warehouses that rim the watershed.
“Recently, the Lehigh is experiencing an amount of rapid land development for warehouse construction. It’s really pretty unprecedented,” said Lia Mastropolo, director of clean water supply for American Rivers. “Four square miles, which is several thousand acres of land, have already been developed, which is kind of hard to get your head around. And there’s a lot more in the pipeline. This kind of development is just fundamentally changing the character of the river.”
The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission reported there was almost 18 million square feet of warehouse space added in 2022 alone, dwarfing all other types of development. The commission guides planning in Lehigh and Northampton Counties, which include 62 municipalities.
The numbers do not reflect additional warehousing being built in neighboring counties.
One Amazon warehouse can run 600,000 to 1 million square feet. Environmentalists say such big buildings also come with big parking lots. Small local roads often have to be widened to handle large tractor-trailers. The hard surfaces of buildings and parking lots lead to more storm runoff directly into the Lehigh and its tributaries, carrying pollution along with it. Runoff contains gas, oil, and coolant leaked from vehicles.
American Rivers said that poor planning has led to threats to the Lehigh, putting clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, rural and local communities, and open space all at risk.
“It’s really harmful to a river that people really do love and that’s why we’re trying to elevate this to the national level — that this is a pretty special resource for this part of the country,” Mastropolo said. “And we really do think that this level of development is posing a pretty serious impact.”
Where is the Lehigh?
The Lehigh River starts at 2,100 feet above sea level near Pocono Peak Lake in Wayne County. It runs 103 miles until emptying into the Delaware River in Easton, Northampton County. It traverses Lackawanna, Monroe, Luzerne, Carbon, and Lehigh Counties, tumbling through a picturesque landscape of forests, gorges, and wetlands.
But it also has an industrial past and travels through densely populated areas including Allentown and Bethlehem, both also on the banks of the Lehigh.
The river was privately owned from 1821 to 1966 by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. — then the only privately owned river in the United States. It served as a major anthracite coal transport route. Portland Cement and the Bethlehem Steel Plant Corp. both had their operations along the river, attesting to its industrial use.
The Francis E. Walter Dam opened in 1962 to control flooding in the Lehigh River Valley and to provide a water source for the region. Releases of the dam water at various times of the year, turn the Lehigh into a whitewater haven for paddlers.
The 6,107-acre, steep-walled Lehigh Gorge State Park is marked by forests and waterfalls, following the dam’s outlet at the northern end to the town of Jim Thorpe at the southern end. A trail that traces an abandoned railroad along the river is a draw for hikers, cyclists and sightseers.
Although its water quality is better than it was during the industrial heyday, it is still threatened by rampant development.
Residents have been voicing opposition at various public meetings for years. Earlier this year, according to the Morning Call, a crowd from Allen Township, Northampton County, showed up at a planning commission meeting. One person told the commission simply: “We don’t want any more warehouses.”
The Lehigh made the most endangered list primarily through the work of PennFuture, a Pennsylvania-wide nonprofit advocacy group. Donna Kohut, PennFuture’s campaign manager for the Delaware River Basin, lives in the Lehigh Valley.
Kohut said it had become clear by 2021 that warehouses posed a major threat.
“I’m fully aware of the concerns that already exist in my region, in my community, and the desire that many folks express to stop the build out, or at least approach it differently,” Kohut said.
Particularly concerning now, Kohut said, is the spread of warehouses beyond the Lehigh Valley and into the Poconos.
“We started seeing distribution center build expanding northward,” she said. “The communities saw what was happening in the Lehigh Valley. They got concerned they started watching it happen to them.”
Kohut said warehouses and distribution complexes are spreading along Route 33 and I-80 toward Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg.
“Up north in the Pocono mountain region, we’re talking about this build-out that will impact the headwaters of the Lehigh River,” Kohut said.
Kohut said the headwaters contain “the cleanest, most pristine, healthiest waters in the state.”
Projects are on tap in Monroe and Pike Counties — some areas beyond the Lehigh’s watershed. However, Kohut said the road network is interconnected, bringing truck traffic to rural areas where roads aren’t able to handle the loads.
The build-out and congestion also threatens one of the area’s key economic drivers: outdoor recreation. Tourists that flock to the Poconos and rural communities don’t want to see warehouses. At the same time, development threatens the waterways where they recreate.
“We’re talking about impact to the boreal forests on the Pocono plateau,” Kohut said. “We’re talking about wetlands and bogs. We’re talking about forests. And so one of the primary things that happens is those areas will get deforested. You’re seeing an actual change to the landscape and ecosystems.”