1. Home
  2. Docs
  3. Our Future Lancaster
  4. Conestoga Riverfront Reimagined
  5. Introduction and Context

Introduction and Context

This chapter of the Comprehensive Plan presents a strategy to restore the Conestoga River and transform Lancaster City into a center of excellence for clean water, environmental stewardship, and sustainable waterfront development. The Conestoga River has been a polluted and neglected part of our city’s landscape for too long. The policies and actions in this Element reimagine the river as a recreational and aesthetic amenity, ecological asset, economic driver, and focal point of community life. 

Roughly 62 miles in length, the Conestoga begins in southern Berks County and northern Lancaster County and flows southwest to the Susquehanna River just north of the state line. The river and its tributaries drain a watershed of nearly 491 square miles. Generations ago, the Conestoga River was a freight route for steamboats and a focal point for recreation. City dwellers boarded riverboats for pleasure cruises and excursions to and from Rocky Spring Park, while fishers and swimmers were drawn to the river for summer fun. 

Agriculture and urbanization of the watershed, including factories and sewage plants, caused erosion and impaired water quality. By 1922, the river was deemed unsafe. The riverboats disappeared, and swimming and fishing largely came to an end. What was once a scenic waterway mostly vanished from public usage and view. 

Recent decades have seen the gradual, early stages of renewal. The Clean Water Act of 1972 spurred the cleanup of the nation’s waterways, and Lancaster County’s streams and rivers are healthier and continuing to improve. Public interest in water recreation and river trails has grown. Cities across the United States have demonstrated the intrinsic value of reopening their riverfronts for public enjoyment.

An ongoing challenge is the City’s combined sanitary-stormwater system, which overflows into the river during heavy rains. The City has been working to reduce these overflows under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Since 2010, Lancaster has prioritized green infrastructure to detain and treat stormwater where it is generated, reducing runoff and the discharge of pollutants. Efforts to improve water quality and protect ecological resources are underway. 

In 2018, Lancaster County established a Countywide Action Plan for meeting federal Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) goals for sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous—which has further set the stage for ecosystem repair and sustainable development. Lancaster County and the City of Lancaster have both developed the professional capacity for thoughtful environmental work. Today, the City and surrounding municipalities are poised to redefine the river corridor and riverfront lands as a special place.