Welcome / Bienvenu / добро пожаловать / 欢迎


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Chesapeake ergo Susquehanna: D's and F's

Imagine, if you will, that your income suddenly declined by 68%. Or your overall health. Or your vocabulary. Or your ability to walk. (Ask me about that one). Your life would drastically change...and not for the better.

According to the experts at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with a current ranking of 32 out of a possible score of 100 (which was the assumed quality of the Bay in 1608), that is the current condition of the Chesapeake Bay. And as its largest tributary, the Susquehanna River is not too far behind. Or, viewed another way, perhaps the Susquehanna is the biggest contributor to all of the D's and F's on the CBF's 2012 scorecard displayed above.

I am not afraid to paddle my kayak in the Susquehanna. Or take others along for the ride. Or catch and release fish; I just won't consume anything I catch. I am not afraid to wade or swim in the river. However, there are sections along the river that I would probably avoid at all costs. Even using the highest quality portable water filtration devices out there - and boiling it for hours - I would never drink water taken directly from the river unless my life depended on it. And although formerly one of my favorites, I recently stopped buying Chobani yogurt once I saw they were withdrawing water from aquifers in the Marcellus Shale region. That is my personal decision as a consumer, and not a slam against their product.  

People are constantly dumping who knows what into the river...and elsewhere within the Susquehanna's watershed.  Some get caught, some don't. In the past decade, the Susquehanna has twice been named the most endangered river in America. That's endangered...not polluted. As I was intimately involved in both designations, from nomination through release, I'll stop there.

The PFBC has been issuing fish consumption advisories for many years; primarily for mercury and PCB contamination. For those unfamiliar with the concepts of bioaccumulation and bioconcentration, take a few minutes to get up to speed here

I have been plunking away, i.e. "blogging" on the internet since at least 1999...perhaps earlier as I truly remember firing up an online journal about the Susquehanna shortly after I bought my first kayak in 1997. I have been fishing PA's waters for over 40 years, and I was studying the river in the mid-70's while in college. When I recently read a statement attributed to someone assumed to know something about the river saying there are no "toxins" in the river just because there is a significant mayfly hatch, I wanted to wretch.

The presence of mayflies and other benthic macroinvertebrates, and other biota like crayfish for that matter, are used by scientists as indicators of overall water quality. If you want a crash course on the EPT Index, check out this document. Their presence is not an indication there are no toxic substances in the river, either man made contaminants/chemicals or naturally produced toxins. There are a myriad of toxic substances in the river; just not enough to wipe out the mayflies in the Wyoming Valley. However, everything has its tipping point. Everything.

Folks...I could go on and on here. In my opinion and by definition; the Susquehanna is polluted. The Susquehanna is impaired, and the Susquehanna is a far, far cry from the river that existed some 398 years ago when Etienne Brule first cruised its waters from Sayre, PA to the Chesapeake in 1615.

From the 2011 American Rivers' Most Endangered press release:

“The Susquehanna is one of the most ancient rivers on Earth. In its current state, it is a far cry from the pristine and primeval watershed that existed only a few centuries ago. The threat posed by the natural gas industry and horizontal hydrofracturing will eclipse the environmental legacy of the lumber and coal-mining industries combined, and as a long-time advocate for the protection of the Susquehanna, I believe we must call for an immediate moratorium on all water withdrawals and all natural gas drilling until the technology and legislation catches up with the desire and need to exploit these fossil-fuel resources,”

said Don Williams, Susquehanna River Sentinel. 
I will continue to recreate on the Susquehanna River - and encourage others to join me - until I believe it is unsafe to do so. As of today, at least on the sections of the north branch that I'm most familiar with, we're not there yet.

My three children in the Susquehanna near Quick's Bend, PA   


  1. I have read your comments here, Don, and I think you know more than I do, a lot more, and have studied the river for decades. So I know you have a very good understanding of the river. I am afraid to go in the river inspite of your assurance that it is still OK. But I realize that this is very hard to judge. I do crew on the Genesee River here in Rochester, and I believe it is also quite polluted. I have recently learned that chemicals from a water treatment plant in Angelica, NY, have been released into the Genesee for the last 2 years I believe, and that river flows north, emptying into Lake Ontario. So there is no safe place anymore IMO.

    1. William L. Yingling M.D.July 2, 2013 at 2:18 PM

      Skin provides a large surface area for absorption of chemicals in water (almost as effective as drinking the water).
      Of course the amount absorbed will vary depending of the concentration in the water, the amount of time you are in contact with the water and damaged skin may absorb more. The very young, the very old and the pregnant will likely to be affected more easily by smaller amounts of absorbed chemicals. What areas of the Susquehanna watershed are safe? Each person must inform themself, educate themself and then make a choice? It's a shame the smallmouth bass don't have a choice.
      William L. Yingling M.D.

  2. Do you have an opinion about the safety of the river in the French Azilum area?

  3. Peacegirl:

    It's kinda like voting; a highly personal decision. On a hot & humid summer day, after paddling/working for several hours, I would not hesitate to take a quick dip in the river to cool off at Quick's Bend, or below Standing Stone near French Azilum...emphasis on quick. I cannot say the same for other sections of the river, especially anywhere immediately downstream from where the Lackawanna enters the Susquehanna.

    Several years ago, I went "swimming" in the section near French Azilum when I hit a rock in the rapids and was ejected from my boat. I would completely understand if someone was reluctant to swim in any portion of the river, and would respect their decision...as I would expect in kind if I chose to do the opposite. As we almost lost a young girl several years ago who was told - repeatedly - not to wade out more than knee deep in the river ( she didn't listen ), I would not allow young kids in the river without wearing a firm-fitting PFD and an adult alongside.

    Again...this is my personal opinion only.


  4. P.S.: Thanks for stopping by and offering your comments.


  5. Thanks to all for sharing their opinions and perspectives on this issue. As you can see from the "Most visited posts" on the left margin of this blog, there has been quite a bit of traffic to this specific post in the past week from the USA, France, Canada and elsewhere. Your comments are being viewed by many and, hopefully, they're listening and learning.