An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


Climate summit: The Conestoga River and the lessons of history

Jack Howell speaks at First Presbyterian Church during the Lancaster County Climate Summit on Saturday, April 22, 2023. (Photo: Max Weidman)

(This article is part of One United Lancaster’s reporting on the 2023 Lancaster County Climate Summit.)

Lancaster’s founding and flourishing were a direct result of the Conestoga River, Jack Howell believes.

Howell, representing the Spanish American Civic Association, spoke at First Presbyterian Church as part of the Lancaster County Climate Summit about Lancaster’s present and historical relationship with the river that winds through the county and feeds into the Susquehanna.

Howell described how various dams along the river were instrumental in creating the wealth of some of Lancaster’s most storied names and families. He noted that cargo once moved all the way from Lancaster city to Baltimore, and from there to Europe.

He reminded the audience that Lancaster has a vital dependence on its watershed, much of which suffered greatly throughout the 20th century. Farm runoff and industrial usage of Lancaster County’s waterways degraded them severely. Howell lauded the work of the EPA, especially 1972’s Clean Water Act, in curtailing that deterioration. That reduction of pollution, he argues, is the essential “value of regulation.”

Planters installed along Pershing Street across from the Centro Hispano in southeast Lancaster. (Photo: Max Weidman)

He detailed some of his recent work with SACA’s Elm Street Project, like the installation of curbside planters. He argued that these and other improvements lead to reduced litter and an increased sense of pride among community members. 

Howell closed his presentation with a long view of history. He described how new to the scene the human species is, and what a relatively short time we’ve spent as part of the planet’s ecosystem. “Almost every molecule in the glass of water you drink,” he explained, “was already drunk by dinosaurs.”

Interviewed after his presentation, Howell expressed distress about Lancaster’s development over the last 20 years and lamented how much of history gets lost with each passing generation.

“Instead of learning from mistakes, a short circuit forms and similar solutions get presented again and again as new answers,” he said.

He reminisced about the first Earth Day in 1970. He has a degree in urban planning from Michigan State University and believes that environmental preservation can be the driving force behind smart development.

Buchanan Park was once the site of a water reservoir, he said, which burst and flooded the area. He hopes that the City’s historical markers — like ones in Buchanan Park which tell that story — can help.

Howell believes neglected neighborhoods will thrive when their communities take on the work themselves. This means an incremental approach like the one on Pershing Street, where improvement hopefully becomes self-sustaining.