Rural pollutants that impact the Chesapeake region affect Pennsylvania trout streams
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
John Hayes / Post-Gazette
Captain Ian Robbins navigates the Snow Goose over the Chesapeake Bay Flats.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. -- Afloat at the northern tip of Chesapeake Bay, the Snow Goose is an educational vessel outfitted as a floating classroom for children, scientists and journalists. On this day, with a brisk wind blowing off the bay, the boat motored north into the briney mouth of the Susquehanna River, the environmental troublemaker that drains Central Pennsylvania and supplies Chesapeake Bay with 50 percent of its freshwater.
Despite the bay’s reputation as a once-fertile fish haven that was rapidly becoming a waste dump, there’s recent evidence that Chesapeake Bay is cleaning up. A small team from the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation uses the boat to gather data and distribute information. What happens on trout streams hundreds of miles inland impact the struggling bay.
“There’s been significant improvement during the last four years, but it’s a fragile improvement that could easily be reversed,” said Captain Ian Robbins, an environmental scientist working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
First a little prehistory. The Susquehanna is the fourth oldest river on Earth. It originated on the ancient continent Pangea, and survived the separation of the North American continent from the original landmass, and four glacial epochs. Chesapeake Bay, in fact, is the ancient flooded Susquehanna River channel surrounded by shallow flooded flats.
Today, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a huge sprawling system that drains some 64,000 square miles in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia. It empties into one shallow tidal basin. Although the submerged river channel can reach depths of some 70 feet, the bay’s average depth is just 21 feet,
This weekend, thousands of Pennsylvania trout anglers will wade through Chesapeake watershed streams that reach as far west as Indiana County. They’ll kick up sediment containing agricultural and urban toxins that will reach the gulf in about 18 days.
Pennsylvania doesn't border Chesapeake Bay, but 42 of its 67 counties lie within the bay watershed. Pennsylvania has two major rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed -- the Susquehanna and Potomac. Combined, they encompass 40 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and Pennsylvania discharges more nitrogen into the bay than any other state.
“Nutrients like potassium and nitrogen run off the fields, go down the river and into the bay. They remove oxygen from the water creating these dead zones where crabs and fish can’t live,” said Robbins. “We’ve found that even small improvements to the water quality can change the chemical composition and shrink those dead zones.”
The improvements were the result of the Clean Water Blueprint, an unfunded agreement among Chesapeake-impacting states to voluntarily reduce farm runoff and municipal waste that enters the bay. One state, Pennsylvania, has been chronically behind schedule. The state Department of Environmental Protection determined last year that Pennsylvania would not meet its Clean Water Blueprint goal of having 60 percent of the pollution-reduction practices necessary to restore water quality in place by 2017.
The Susquehanna was once famous for its smallmouth fishery. Last year a joint study released by the DEP, the state Fish and Boat Commission and a half-dozen partner agencies showed a connection between a widespread disease that affects smallmouth bass and agricultural runoff and municipal sewage discharge, with parasite infestation a secondary complication. DEP declared a portion of the river to be "impaired," the first-ever designation of that kind for a major Pennsylvania waterway. But stakeholder groups that participated in the report suggested the narrow ruling covering just 4 miles of water was insufficient.
John Arway, executive director of the state Fish and Boat Commission, who for years has lobbied for Susquehanna River remediation, said at the time the long-awaited DEP action addressed only a local problem involving catfish contamination by PCB chemicals.
"Despite how long this has been going on, all the research that's been done, this doesn't address the issue," he said.
Farther upstream on Chesapeake watershed tributaries, some of the same problems that impact the bay affect trout streams. Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported in 2016 that after heavy rains, levels of bacteria at some testing sites were more than 10 times higher than health standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Test sites were chosen to gauge input by agricultural, urban, suburban and mixed land use sources, The highest levels of E. coli, a key indicator of bacterial growth, were found at a community park on Yellow Breeches Creek, a world-renowned trout stream that bisects Cumberland and York counties.
The report showed that nine of 14 samplings for E. coli returned results above the threshold set by the EPA. No testing was done to determine the impact on native and stocked trout.
E. coli and fecal coliform are relatively easy to measure in bacteria samples tested for contamination of human or animal waste. A normal part of intestinal biology, the presence of E. coli in the water does not indicate a risk to human health, but it suggests that pathogens may be present which can cause gastrointestinal illness, headaches and other symptoms.
Chemical impacts that have turned some areas of Chesapeake Bay into dead zones can do similar damage to streams hundreds of miles inland.
“The run-off nutrients come off the farms and fall to the creek bottom,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokesman B.J. Small. “The mud gets stirred up by heavy flow and other things. The nitrogen and potassium, which are good when they’re in the ground on the farm, combine in the water and remove oxygen. The first thing that happens is the bug life leaves and then the fish. The oxygen-depleted areas experience a toxic bloom. They’re hard to contain because they’re gone the next day. They reform on another part of the stream or river when the conditions are right again.”
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