``This is, without question, precedent setting,'' said Judy Shuler, a resident of London Grove who has cochaired the effort since its beginning in 1991.
She said she expected that legislators from Western states, where watersheds are vast webs covering several states, would be looking closely at the management plan for the White Clay, a document that outlines goals for the resource.
That the White Clay should be considered at all is something of an achievement. The national program was begun in the late 1960s by two brothers who were river pioneers and grizzly-bear researchers and who hoped to protect the pristine wilderness of rivers typical of the West.
The White Clay and its myriad feeder streams, on the other hand, burble up from springs and seepages in central Chester County - the fastest-growing county in a populous metropolitan region.
Although it is bucolic in many parts, home to endangered species and a source of drinking water for thousands, the White Clay has another side. Its junction with the Christina River in Delaware, a portion not being considered for inclusion, is a vast marsh split by Interstate 95 and located near a Superfund site.
But it represents, Barscz said, ``a new generation'' of wild and scenic rivers - urban waterways also deemed worthy of protection.
Technically neither wild nor scenic, these rivers fit the designation under the ``recreation'' criteria, a catch-all that serves as a nod to a river's historic and cultural value.
And the populous East has been the first to officially recognize the value of looking at a river not just as a ribbon of water - although a stretch of the Delaware from Trenton to the Delaware Water Gap also is being considered - but a a watershed that is an intricate web of waters and lands, with many uses.
``It is a more holistic way of looking at a river,'' Barscz said.
The designation does little more than guarantee that no federal projects - such as a dam or a bridge - will be built over the waterway. But before the watershed can be designated, residents and officials must agree on a management plan that, in effect, maps the future of the watershed.
That means consulting with all of the people who live near it or work on it or get water from it or are involved in any way.
The process has been cumbersome, to say the least. Surveys were mailed to nearly 3,000 landowners in two counties (Chester and New Castle County, Del.) and 13 municipal jurisdictions.
Two states were involved, as were dozens of other government entities. Then there were chambers of commerce, farmers, wildlife organizations, trail clubs, hunting groups, developers, you name it.
The management plan eventually endorsed by all the municipalities seeks to conserve the water quantity and quality, conserve open space and woodlands, protect native plants and animals, enhance outdoor recreation, encourage environmental education, and preserve cultural, archaeological and historical sites.
The big question most people had is whether inclusion in the national system would limit development. While that has been the case with some rivers, it's not part of this plan, those involved contend.
Instead, the focus is on managing development so it won't harm the watershed. Boiled down to its simplest terms, the final document says that the White Clay is a valuable resource that is worth sustaining, and to Shuler using the word ``sustain'' instead of ``protect'' makes a big difference.
``Protecting means hands off. Sustaining means you do things to continue it,'' said Shuler, who lives in a former grist mill along the Middle Branch of the White Clay.
Barscz said there were enough plans at the local and county level dealing with where growth should occur. ``This works on the issue from a different angle. We deal mainly with the effects of growth - how you can develop and still maintain and protect the streams.''
Rather than mandating changes, the plan is supposed to be a catalyst. As such, it's already working, Barscz said.
For instance, the plan suggests ways to construct a seemingly mundane feature of suburban development: culverts. Rather than plopping down a metal or concrete pipe, it recommends designing one so it has a natural bottom that will support stream life.
London Grove recently adopted that as a regulation.
``Those are the kinds of long-term benefits that we believe we'll continue to see as communities work together and analyze issues facing the White Clay,'' Barscz said.
Already, ``the level of communication I've seen within the watershed has jumped tenfold,'' he said - a sign that ``people are really beginning to take an interest in what's happening in their backyard and the effect in a greater geographic area.''
The impending federal approval, if it occurs, is ``sort of the ending of one chapter and the beginning of another,'' he said.
The municipalities and multitudes of others that participated ``will have to carry forward the management plan that we jointly created,'' Barscz said. ``That's the challenge.''