Susquehanna Fish Tales
Summer days in central Pennsylvania are never short of fishing tales from the Susquehanna. Record catches. Big bass. Talk of jigs versus spinner baits. The stories are legend – double digit catches from a single afternoon and the infamous stories about catching bass with your bare hands.
Yet recently, these stories have been replaced with more startling accounts. Mounting evidence of sick fish, disease, lesions and open sores, intersex conditions (male fish with female cells), and severe die offs in young-of-the-year smallmouth bass. The smallmouth bass has been the canary in the coalmine indicating that something just isn’t right with the Susquehanna River and water quality tests have confirmed this.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) and many anglers in the region contend that sick fish mean a sick river and it’s time to act. PFBC sampling has shown increased levels of dissolved phosphorus as well as pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The river also suffers from high pH and low dissolved oxygen which is related to warmer water temperatures.
In the summer of 2011, the PFBC along with environmental and conservation organizations asked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to list about 100 miles of the lower Susquehanna (Holtwood to Sunbury) as impaired. The original request also included listing about 30 miles of the Juniata. Further requests came from anglers up and down the river and 22 retired DEP professionals. The impairment declaration would add the Susquehanna River to the federal list of “dirty” waters, known as the 303(d) list. Under the federal Clean Water Act, states are required to develop a list of these impaired waters not meeting their water quality standards. After a waterway is listed, the state must also develop a cleanup plan, officially known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limiting the amount of pollution in our waterways.
My friends in the Chesapeake Bay community know TMDLs or pollution limits all too well as there is a cap on the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that is permitted to enter the waterways in our region. The Bay is actually a great example of why the Susquehanna needs to be listed now. There have been significant restoration efforts underway in the region for 25 years, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the EPA established the landmark TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay. Clean water cleanup plans take years to write and implement.
DEP denied listing the Susquehanna as impaired when the draft list was published at the end of January. DEP cites lack of evidence the river is in fact impaired and has gone on to say that the actual cause of the river’s issues have not been determined or linked to a particular water quality issue. Ironically, we have 40,000 TMDLs in this country and a whole host of waterways are listed as impaired due to “unknown impairment” because the sources are not yet identified. Challenges pinpointing a specific cause of impairment should not delay the listing.
Listing the river as impaired isn’t a silver bullet. It’s the beginning of a long cleanup plan to garner attention and begin restoring the river back to health. It’s going to take resources – time, energy, money and, of course, good science, all in an attempt to figure out why the river is suffering and then start to fix it.
EPA still has the authority to deem the river impaired. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA can disapprove or partially disapprove of a state impaired waters list. EPA is working to accept or partially accept Pennsylvania’s list right now. You can weigh in with EPA to ask that the Susquehanna is protected under the Clean Water Act. You can also consider joining the Susquehanna Summit on March 20thto hear more about these challenges and the possible solutions for the river. Policy experts, scientists, fishery biologists, citizens and river rats are not willing to sit by as our beloved river continues to decline. We look forward to building a powerful voice to save the river, so our fishing tales don’t become a thing of the past.