Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Susquehanna on the mend
River is getting healthier, but still needs tender, loving care Susquehanna on the mend BY AD CRABLE, Staff Writer
The overall health of the Susquehanna River Basin continues to improve.
But disease in the prized smallmouth bass population is increasing, and the amount of streams impaired by bacteria and other microscopic-organism pollution continues to rise, according to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.
The federal-state agency responsible for managing the basin's water resources issued its second "State of the Susquehanna" report Wednesday.
It shows trends in sediment and nutrient pollution, stormwater contamination, mine drainage, floods and droughts, drinking water protection and other indicators from 2010 through 2012.
Paul Swartz, SRBC executive director, said the goal of the report is to provide a snapshot of water-resource trends without rating or ranking conditions.
"Based on data generated by the Commission ... there has been good progress in some water resources areas, but much more is needed in others," Swartz said.
Runoff of sediment and nutrients from farmland -- especially in the Lower Susquehanna -- and from urban stormwater has been a target in recent years by federal officials striving to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
On that score, concentrations of nitrogen in the river have been reduced by 33 percent, compared to 30 percent two years ago. Phosphorus has been reduced by 41 percent, compared to 33 percent before, and sediment is down 46 percent, compared to 41 percent in 2010.
The number of watersheds with adopted plans to reduce that pollution has grown from 106 to 136.
About 4,200 miles of streams in the river basin are impacted by nutrients and sediment, most of them in the Lower Susquehanna, which includes Lancaster County, according to the report.
"Nutrient- and sediment-monitoring data indicate the overall health of the Susquehanna River Basin is continuing to improve," Swartz said.
But, he added, "Unfortunately, that is only half the story."
He notes that the incidence of disease in smallmouth bass, particularly in the Lower Susquehanna, "continues to increase due to yet-unknown sources."
Growths, die-offs and intersex smallmouth bass recently pitted the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission against Gov. Tom Corbett's administration. Intersex fish are those with both male and female characteristics.
PFBC urged the state Department of Environmental Protection to declare the river "impaired," which would require action to find the source of the disease and do something about it.
DEP refused, saying there is no scientific evidence yet on the cause. Instead, DEP said it would continue to vigorously monitor the river.
PFBC and environmental groups responded by urging the public to bypass the state and appeal directly to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action.
The report notes "emerging concerns" about personal-care products, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and hormones getting into the rivers and streams, mostly from sewage-treatment plants.
The percentage of streams designated as suitable for recreation and drinking that are now impaired because of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms has more than doubled in the last two years.
Nowhere in the report do the words Marcellus Shale show up.
But the report does tout the SRBC's incentives to get companies to re-use mine drainage and waters with poor stream quality.
Susan Obleski, a SRBC spokeswoman, acknowledged that effort is aimed mainly at encouraging the natural gas industry to use such water for fracking.
But she said there have been few takers so far, partly because of technical concerns and partly because of liability concerns over using contaminated water.
Some environmental groups have been critical of SRBC for not doing enough to investigate the impacts of Marcellus Shale gas extraction on water quality and quantity.
But Obleski said the agency has already launched a comprehensive cumulative water-quantity study looking at all water uses in the basin and comparing it to available water resources. The study should be complete in 2015, she said.
Water-quality issues, she added, are the province of DEP.