Recent studies appear to show a connection between tens of thousands of diseased smallmouth bass and agricultural runoff, parasites and municipal sewage discharge.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG — John Arway was in the boat in 2014 when a buddy reeled in the bass that has become the sickly public face of the Susquehanna River.
The executive director of the state Fish and Boat Commission, Mr. Arway had been prodding other state and federal agencies to take action that would begin to end the deformities plaguing the river’s non-native smallmouth population. For years he had granted interviews, written articles, given speeches and testified before any government body that would listen to his analysis of the river’s plight and warnings of potentially broader environmental consequences. The Susquehanna photo op, Mr. Arway quipped, almost literally fell into his lap.
“If sick fish had a PR company, they might pull something like this,” he said, recalling his witnessing of the ugly catch from waters just north of the state capital. A large bulbous tumor on the smallmouth’s lower lip was later found to be cancerous, and although it hasn’t been conclusively linked to the larger bass problem, the photo snapped by Mr. Arway made the national news.
Recent studies appear to show a connection between tens of thousands of diseased smallmouth bass and agricultural runoff, parasites and municipal sewage discharge. Based on research including that data, the state Department of Environmental Protection was expected in February to rule on the river’s viability — a declaration of “impairment” would trigger federal and state actions and funding.
PG map: Susquehanna River Basin (Click image for larger version)
But DEP hasn’t made a decision, and the delay suggests to some that the department may determine additional research is needed.
Neil Shader, DEP press secretary, said an updated list of impaired waterways likely will be released in May.
“Waterways that are listed are given thorough review to determine the cause[s] of impairment and the solutions to resolve the impairment,” he said. “Research conducted to determine impairment findings examines four main water-quality standards: aquatic life, fish consumption, recreation and potable water supply.”
Whatever it is that’s killing Susquehanna smallmouths, some 18 million gallons of it flows into Chesapeake Bay every minute. Harry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the time to act is now.
“The research hones in on four likely causes — it’s like a perfect storm of endocrine disruptors, hormone-mimicking compounds, herbicides and parasites,” he said. “Impairment status carries scientific and legal thresholds … [and] we understand the scientific challenges. But you could have ‘impairment’ while continuing to research the specifics.”
Late last year, a joint study by DEP, Fish and Boat and a half dozen partner agencies suggested that discharge from farms and municipal sewage facilities were the likely sources of the chemicals, and parasite infestation was a contributing factor. In a statement, DEP Secretary John Quigley suggested the river’s complexity impeded research — water from some tributaries doesn’t mix with the main stem for more than 40 miles.
“What looks like just one body of water acts like five unique rivers, all with different characteristics,” he said. “The Juniata, West Branch [of the Susquehanna] and main stem each tend to run in their own isolated lanes in the riverbed, with the smaller tributaries hugging both shorelines.”
The theory holds that instead of diluting, chemical pollutants become concentrated in individual “lanes” of unmixed waters, contributing to the destruction of a smallmouth fishery that just a few decades ago was considered one of the best on the East Coast.
The Susquehanna flows nearly 465 miles from branches in New York state and northcentral Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. More ancient than the Appalachian Mountains it dissects, it is one of the oldest rivers on earth. Its 27,500-square-mile watershed reaches as far west as Indiana County, draining nearly half the state as it rolls through central Pennsylvania farmlands, past cities and towns and cuts across a few miles of Maryland before emptying into Chesapeake Bay. Along the way, algae blooms, mine drainage, stormwater discharge and sedimentation cause temporary local problems, but Mr. Arway said that doesn’t explain what’s happening to the bass.
“Part of the problem with this is that it’s only the bass. The lesions, the tumors, dark blotching on the fins of young smallmouths — we have no evidence of other fish being affected in the same way,” he said. “That’s unusual.”
Jonathan Niles, director of the Freshwater Research Initiative at Susquehanna University, Northumberland County, has called for more research to understand such a “vast and complicated system.” And while DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have agreed that smallmouths are in decline on the middle Susquehanna and lower Juniata rivers, there’s insufficient data, they say, to meet established protocols necessary to determine whether the problem is with the bass or the water.
Mr. Campbell suggested that part of the problem is politics. The consequences Pennsylvania may face for failing to meet EPA-mandated clean-water commitments would be costly to farmers and municipalities. And what’s so hard, he asked, about declaring the Susquehanna “impaired” while continuing to look for answers?
“One of the reasons this is challenging is that Pennsylvania has never listed a water body of this size as impaired,” said Mr. Campbell, “and using a singular fish species to make that determination falls outside traditional methodology to determine impairment status.”
Precedent for declaring river impairment while continuing research on the cause and remedy, he said, is flowing right through Harrisburg. An initial state ruling of impairment on Paxton Creek was overturned by an EPA panel, which allowed project funding to flow even as a less stringent approach for developing invertebrate-friendly stream nutrient standards was adopted.
Mr. Shader said DEP foresees no consequences if it decides to invest time in more research.
But if Pennsylvania decides to kick the Susquehanna can farther down the road, EPA could retaliate. Some $3 million in upcoming infrastructure funding could be withheld, Mr. Campbell said. Regulatory authority over municipalities could be expanded with demands for costly upgrades, or Washington could lean on the state to more strictly enforce regulations on agricultural discharge.
“When you start this federal government versus the state, it never ends well,” said Mr. Arway. “At this point, I’d rather see a compromise where neither side gets everything it wants but something is finally done about these smallmouths.”
Mr. Campbell says it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture.
“If we do not address holistically the pollution in the Susquehanna feeding into Chesapeake Bay,” he said, “Chesapeake Bay will not be the body of water it has been.”
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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