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Is it Safe to Swim in White Clay Creek?

People frequently ask if it is safe to swim in White Clay Creek Preserve. The answer is complicated. Bacterial samples are collected at multiple sites 5-10 times during the recreational season during baseflow (48 hours or more of no rain preceding the sample grab). This is the time of year when most people are using the creek and are likely to be in direct contact with the water. There are 30 monitoring sites throughout the watershed (DE/PA) where the White Clay Wild and Scenic Program takes samples, and four of those are within the Pennsylvania White Clay Creek Preserve. This provides a snapshot of the water quality during the recreational season and results often show that the creek does not meet state or federal standards set by the Clean Water Act. However, that does not mean people should not get out and enjoy the creek. They just need to take the proper precautions, like staying out of the creek during a rain event (and up to 72 hours after). Rain washes fecal material from pets, wildlife, agriculture, and failing septic systems into the Creek, elevating the levels of harmful bacteria.

In addition to this monitoring, the United States Geological Service (USGS) has a permanent monitoring site in the preserve near Strickersville, PA (below where the east and west branch meet). Historically, they have measured fecal coliform, but this year they are also looking at Escherichia coliform (also referred to as E. coli) since it is a better indicator of bacteria that can cause human illness. While the levels found do not always meet standards set for total body contact (emerging eyes, nose, ears, or mouth in the water) they are not unusual for developed watersheds like the White Clay. Shane Morgan, Watershed coordinator for the White Clay Wild and Scenic River Program notes that the bacteria levels are generally lower in the larger tributaries where people swim like the main branch (running through the park) since it gets diluted by the volume of water as opposed to some of the smaller tributary creeks where there is more contact with the land and less water to dilute it. We want people to enjoy recreational activities in the creek, like swimming and fishing, and suggest that they follow a few simple steps put together by the Chester County Water Resources Authority (CCWRA) to help prevent illnesses from poor water conditions. These tips are posted below and can be found at https://chesco.org/3831/Health-and-Safety-Tips.

Before you get in the water:

  • Avoid getting in the water during heavy rainfall and for approximately three days afterward.
  • Avoid getting in the water if you are sick or have open cuts, scrapes, or wounds.
  • Shower with soap and warm water.
  • Look for signs of poor water quality, such as dead fish, trash, and oil slicks or scum on or near the water.
  • Bring hand sanitizer or soap and clean water for washing your hands.

While you’re in the water:

  • Don’t pee or poop in the water.
  • Don’t swallow the water.
  • Avoid getting water up your nose, especially in warm freshwater.
  • Take kids on bathroom breaks. Waiting to hear “I have to go” may mean that it’s already too late.
  • Check and change diapers in a bathroom or diaper-changing area away from the water.


Water Quality Monitoring in the White Clay Creek