Fish survey

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists search for fingerling smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna in Lancaster County below the Route 30 bridge in July 2008.

The head of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has called on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on phosphorus levels from agriculture to save the Susquehanna River.

The letter to EPA on Monday is PFBC executive director John Arway’s latest earnest plea to stem the river’s declining water quality and a collapsing smallmouth bass fishery.

Arway’s earlier attempt to get the state Department of Environmental Protection to declare the Susquehanna “impaired,” which would force state and federal cleanup action, was denied by DEP, which said it was stepping up its monitoring and investigation of root causes of the river’s decline.

Now, Arway is asking the feds to help identify the factors contributing to the poor health of the Susquehanna River and begin taking steps to improve the river's condition "before it becomes too late to repair the damage."

 In the letter to EPA Administrator Shawn Garvin, Arway said the PFBC supports EPA's recent decision to increase oversight of pollutants from the agricultural sector in Pennsylvania's portion of the Chesapeake Bay. But he said more needs to be done.

“While large strides have been made in other sectors, the agricultural sector has been more complicated to understand and subsequently account for in regulatory improvements," Arway said. "Further investigation into the agricultural contribution will be challenging but one that is much needed and long overdue."

 In particular, Arway urged the EPA to establish thresholds for reducing the amount of dissolved phosphorus, which he said is "plaguing the water quality" of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

 "While target parameters such as total nitrogen and total phosphorus are important in estuarine management, I strongly recommend that EPA's upcoming focus include targets specifically for the Susquehanna River, a riverine environment that's the bay's largest tributary," he said.

"These would include the dissolved components of phosphorus which are fueling algal blooms and increased productivity in the Susquehanna River and its tributaries creating the primary stressor that cause young bass immune systems to be stressed, the fish to become weakened, then become infected with bacteria and die."

Arway said that specific recommendations which would have far-reaching impacts to improve the Susquehanna if enacted statewide include:

• Avoid agricultural applications of phosphorus in the autumn.

• Reduce the phosphorus load delivered during the spring period (March 1 to June 30).

• Increase the scale and intensity of agricultural Best Management Practices (BMP) programs that have been shown to reduce phosphorus runoff.  

• Strengthen and increase the use of regulatory mechanisms of conservation farm planning to reduce nutrient loadings.

•     Accelerate 4Rs (Right source, Right rate, Right time and Right place) outreach/extension programs and phase in mandatory certification  standards for agrology advisors, retailers and applicators to ensure fertilizer is applied based on the 4Rs.  

• Ban the application of manure, biosolids and commercial fertilizers containing phosphorus from agricultural operations on frozen ground or ground covered by snow.

n Work with local governments to promote and accelerate use of green infrastructure (such as filter strips, rain gardens, bio-swales and engineered wetlands).

• Prohibit the sale and use of phosphorus fertilizers for lawn care.  

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Ad Crable is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer and outdoors columnist who covers the environment and nuclear energy. He can be reached at acrable@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6029. You can also follow @AdCrable on Twitter.