Do We Wait for the River to Die to Call It Ill

Posted by By at 15 February, at 07 : 45 AM Print

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission issued a report on the river this week, with a call for more reliable funding of its assigned data collection program.

The Commissions goal is to make water resources information and data available to the public and let that data speak for themselves, not to rate or rank conditions, said SRBC Executive Director Paul Swartz.

The SRBC was established by Congress in 1971 in a compact that included New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland respectively from the headwaters of the 444-mile watercourse to its ending in the Chesapeake Bay. The commission, based in Harrisburg, is charged with keeping track of the waterway, and determining how much water actually is available for use by consumers along its banks.

The agencys report notes that pollution in the river is improving, with only about 14 percent impaired of the 49,000 miles of main watercourse and the rivers and streams that feed it. On the other hand, the report also notes more than 2,000 miles of waterways still suffering from mine drainage from coal mines abandoned nearly a century ago. And increasing numbers of smallmouth bass are being found cancerous and dying in the 100 miles of river below Sunbury (near the Shamokin Dam).

It is not the commissions job to label the river healthy or unhealthy, but it is its task to gather information useful to those agencies that do apply such labels. In Pennsylvania, that responsibility falls to the Department of Environmental Protection. DEP Secretary Michael Krancer says the river is not impaired, and his pronouncement is the one that went last week to the Environmental Protection Agency

much to the chagrin of PA Fish and Boat Commission head John Arway, who has been lobbying DEP for several years to declare the lower half of the Susquehanna impaired, thus qualifying it for federal assistance under the Clean Water Act assistance that would provide money to aid research on why the fish are dying.

Its unclear why dying fish and mine-polluted waters are not considered impaired; there has been speculation in some quarters that such a label would hurt tourism and maybe make it more difficult to provide water for Marcellus Shale fracking.

Crowds of fishermen travel from surrounding states to enjoy their sport on the Susquehanna; do we really believe they think water is not impaired that is home to fish that sport lesions on their otherwise sleek bodies? On the other hand, with catch-and-release, healthy fish may be less a necessity than when I was young.

I fished for food. I could not have been called a subsistence fisherman my family had sufficient money to set me well on my way to the shadow-creating dimensions I now exhibit. I fished for fun, but we ate what I caught.

Drinking water, so important to millions of residents and businesses along the banks of the Susquehanna, also is at increasing risk. The SRBC report notes the percentage of assessed stream miles impaired by microbial pollution, such as high bacteria levels, has doubled between 2010 and 2012.

In addition, consumptive water use, much of which serves Marcellus fracking operations and electric power plant cooling needs, has steadily increased the past few years.

Amid all that, SRBC reports losing funding that pays for stream gauges so important to gathering information about water flow and related conditions. The report notes funding always has been uncertain, but a major source was eliminated from federal funding when money specifically for the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System was cut.

Meanwhile, as the climate continues to warm, and power plants across the nation are forced to reduce their output as available cooling water increases temperature and reduces flow, the dependability of reliable data becomes increasingly important.

Sunbury is only about 75 miles from the place water is drawn from the Susquehanna River to flow from faucets of residents in the county where I live. Its easy to ignore the implications of dead fish and reduced data collection when ones home is 20-some miles from the water source.

The alternative, of course, is to wait for the river to stop flowing to decide maybe it was hinting all along about its problems.

Photo by Dougtone

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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at john@JohnMesseder.com - Email jmesseder

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