Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Blog

Why The Susquehanna River is Dying!

As an Aquatic Scientist I have done more benthic surveys and chemical evaluations of the streams emptying into the Chesapeake Bay than any scientist. Therefore, I have a good database of knowledge to base my evaluation of the health of these systems.  The Chesapeake Bay is a slowly dying system no matter what the EPA or foundations that are suppose to protect the bay, or the politicians tell you. The Bay is an “environmental black hole.”  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the bay yet the Bay may actually be in poorer shape today than years ago. Most of these monies are wasted including the funds for so called public education, grass roots organizations and even supposed scientific research.  Most of the politicians know this but “the play money” as it is often called is worth dishing out it to keep the “peasants at bay.”

Most of the data that these organizations get and that goes for some of the scientists too, won’t stand up in a court of law!  If it won’t stand up in court than for the most part it is a waste of time. All of these groups think they are helping to save the Bay but the real data says otherwise and you don’t need to be an Aquatic Scientist to figure it out!

For over thirty years the people who said they were trying to save the Chesapeake Bay never figured one thing out:  You Can’t Save the Bay Unless You Save the Rivers, Streams, Tributaries, and Aquifers Emptying in to The Chesapeake. And guess what they still don’t get it today

The Failure to Understand Systems

The failure to understand systems appears to be an American tradition.  From economists to politicians the tried and true methods of extracting the data you like and ignoring the rest has led to our social,  economic, and environmental messes of today.  It has been said that Americans think that there are simple bumper sticker solutions to everything and one only has to observe what’s going on in America today to realize this is what we really believe.
Systems are complex interconnected pathways of inputs, flows and outputs.  They are seldom easy to understand.  Furthermore, the flows are not easy to track especially when synergistic and cumulative effects take place.  Once systems get past a certain point of massive negative inputs they no longer respond to normal analytical methods.  Unfortunately, in America too many scientists, politicians, and observers treat systems as if they were at “zero base.”  In other words, systems are in a normal state and normal analytical methods as well as measures to stop perturbations will work! This reflects the total misunderstanding of systems in this country and is the reason we cannot solve our problems. Furthermore, the statistical methods used to analyze such systems have no real world meaning.  Dr. Taleb in his book The Black Swan points out the misuse of “gaming models and statistics”  that don’t really apply to the systems they are used for.

In the case of the Chesapeake Bay this system has reached a point past its ability to respond to normal analytical methods.  Furthermore, the Bay system is so overwhelmed no matter how much it is studied, or how much money is thrown into it, it will not respond in the manner that we want.  Why can’t the Bay recover in some form?  Because the inputs of the Bay system are overwhelmed!  Remember what I said about if you can’t save the rivers, streams, tributaries, and aquifers you can’t save the Bay!

The Susquehanna

At one time the Susquehanna River was one of the great Smallmouth Bass Fisheries in the world.  Thousands of people made their living in some form from the fisherman and related activities along the river.  Today that number has dwindled and many mom and pop operations are out of business. The river contrary to what DEP and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission may tell you is in sad shape. If the present trends continue the Susquehanna will cease to be a very productive system over the next number of years. To put it bluntly: The Susquehanna River is a dying ecosystem and no one really seems to care including the agencies that are supposed to protect it.

Nature has few solutions to pollution.  But a river can only do so many things.  Rivers survive by diluting the pollutants that enter the system from the air, water, and land.  When rivers like the Susquehanna go through extended periods of drought this dramatically concentrates the pollutants in the lower, warmer volumes of water and causes a complete disruption of the biogeochemical pathways of the system. The Smallmouth Bass Numbers are down again and young of the year populations are drastically low according to most state studies. Now in 2009  reports of dying fish are everywhere.  What was the reply of the state of Pennsylvania on these matters:  “The Fish were dying from stressful spawning activities.”  The fish have been spawning for hundreds of years in the Susquehanna River and why are they dying now from normal spawning activities?  Why?  Because the Susquehanna River is being overloaded with a chemical synergistic soup from the air, water, and land. The fish cannot take the stresses of the changing biogeochemical pathways.  The system cannot absorb the hit!  The system is so overwhelmed that normal biological activities of the fish are resulting in death!

The perturbations into this system are so complex and varied that they result in a myriad of problems including: diseased fish, algal blooms which use up oxygen, and endocrine disrupters which play havoc with fishes’ hormonal balance.  These endocrine disrupters come from a variety of pollutants including pesticides, flame-retardant chemicals, personal-care products, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural products.  Many products dumped into our streams often mimic or act like estrogen compounds in the water.

The mix of perturbations is so complex that we may never find just how all the synergistic and cumulative effects directly affect the biological community of the river. We cannot control the volume of water in the river. We cannot control climate or weather that effects the river.  What we can control is is what we allow to be put into the river and the Pennsylvania DEP and EPA refuse to do that properly!

NPDES Permits and the State of Environmental Pollution in Pennsylvania

NPDES permits (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) are issued by the DEP for releases of pollutants into a body of water.  The EPA has given most states the right to issues these permits.  The EPA takes it for granted that the states are monitoring and issuing the permits properly.  According to its own data as reported to federal agencies: Pennsylvania issues the most NPDES permits each year in the USA.  And according to the results of those permits:  Pennsylvania is Number One in Water Pollution in the United States. Overall Pennsylvania is basically in the top ten of all forms of  pollution including mercury, acid rain etc. in the country and by any logical analysis is the most polluted state in the nation!

As an example of the poor methods, lack of enforcement and destructiveness of these permits consider Big Spring Creek near Newville, Pennsylvania. The stream was regarded as of the best limestone spring creeks in the world. It had one of the few wild brook trout populations in a spring creek in the country.  Big Spring was one of the great fly fishing streams in history and was compared to the private English Chalk Streams of England.
In 1995 Dr. Jack Black and I started a pro bono study (An Ecological Survey of Big Spring Creek with Emphasis on the Effects of Fish Hatchery Effluent) on the stream.  According to the state’s own data 95% of the fish were in a 150 yard stretch at the headwaters of the stream. The other 4.5 miles of water had only 5% of the population.  Our study showed a massively destroyed ecosystem overwhelmed by organic pollutants with low oxygen at the bottom of the stream. Most of the clean water macroinvertebrate community was gone.  One of the greatest spring creeks in the world was now functioning as sewer!

Where did the pollution come from?  It came from the state fish hatchery at the headwaters of the stream.  For over thirty years the stream was polluted by its own state agency.  Where was the DEP?  They issued the permits!  Where was the EPA?  Nowhere to be found!  The DEP finally closed the hatchery in 2002 due to our study and citizen outrage and now the stream is returning to its famous beginnings.

If the NPDES permits can’t protect one of the greatest streams in the world what chance do lesser waters have including those that empty in the Susquehanna?

There is some form of madness in this country and this state. And it has gotten worst the last 8 years where the EPA has been totally destroyed.  So all those pollutants don’t matter.  That’s what we are told by the politicians, government, and corporations.  Unfortunately, they do matter and the idea that they are in too small a quantity to amount to anything is just that ….a myth.  The cumulative and synergistic effects of the chemical soup we are throwing into our rivers (and our own bodies too) is now coming to fruition.

A system is a system.  A river is a flowing ecosystem; you are a walking ecosystem.  You both have an immune system.  When your immune system is stressed, damaged etc. you get sick or diseased.  The same thing happens to a river.  The Susquehanna’s immune system is overloaded and damaged.  It won’t get better easily and considering what’s coming out of the air, waters, and land emptying into the river it may never really return to its former self because it is constantly getting impacted by so many types of pollutants its biogeochemical pathways are overwhelmed.

The EPA, DEP, and PFBC should share equally in the blame for this destruction because they reflect the unfortunate lack of good scientific benchmarking, baselining, and biomonitoring that is needed to protect our waters.  The DEP fails to understand the cumulative and synergistic effects of all the NPDES permits that they issue in this state. These systems can no longer take these permits and the methods used to determine the issuance of such permits is “Dark Age Science” with little validity in today’s world.
We have all failed.  We have a government that doesn’t care and is run by corporations, and we have too many anglers that take everything for granted and don’t wish to get involved. The economic interest of all the people who make their money off this river is hardly considered.  The loss is staggering from guiding, fishing, tourism, the food industry and even gas stations.  But no one seems to get it. This is one of the great environmental fiascoes and it just happens to occur in the state with the most pollution and the most water pollution.  Anymore questions!

The Susquehanna River is dying and so is its counterpart, the Potomac.  The Susquehanna River alone empties over fifty percent of the water going into the Chesapeake Bay.  If anyone believes that the Bay can get better while its main sources of input continue to die then we will remain the insane nation that we are,  and  we will continue throwing money down a black hole of environmental stupidity.

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