The Susquehanna River has some problems, and concerned people including environmentalists and anglers would love to have it listed as impaired.
That designation would make it eligible for federal research money under the Clean Water Act.
A Susquehanna Summit held recently in Lewisburg brought together a number of advocates for the river, the principal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
They talked about the pollution problems from agricultural runoff and sewage disposal.
And, they expressed concerns about the dwindling smallmouth bass population of recent years.
In fact, what was once considered a world-class fishery for bass is being seriously threatened.
“We need to show that the river is not remaining a warmwater fishery,” said Guy Alsentzer, a Lower Susquehanna riverkeeper.
Alsentzer said while there are still plenty of bass in the river, they certainly are not appearing in their past numbers.
Mike O’Brien of Williamsport agreed.
O’Brien, an angler and longtime Susquehanna fishing guide, noted that some of the best bass fishing for many years could be found on the lower Susquehanna near Harrisburg.
But that has changed dramatically in recent years.
“It’s a concern,” he said.
O’Brien said many bass he and many others anglers have caught in the river for quite some time have appeared with spots and lesions.
That’s evidence of a disease known as columnaris which first appeared with the river’s bass population in 2005.
Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission John Arway told Summit attendees that bass have been turning up with such marks well before Marcellus Shale drilling began in the state.
He noted also that while big bass may still be found in as high of numbers as ever, there has been a 7-percent mortality rate among young smallmouths.
American Rivers has listed the Susquehanna as America’s Most Endangered River.
Most acknowledge that there’s little question that the river, which provides 50 percent of the water to the Chesapeake Bay, has serious impairment.
But as environmental attorney Alexandra Chiaruttini put it: “We have to start identifying the causes of impairment.”
Officials feel that unless specific causes are identified, the river will never receive that all-important designation as an impaired stream.
O’Brien said he only hopes that it’s not too late to clean up the river.
He recalls fish kills showing up in the stream more than a decade ago – and nothing being done.
Alsentzer called for everyone to become more proactive in protecting the river.
“We need diligent record keeping and cooperation,” he said.
He urged concerned citizens to get involved politically too.
Michael Helfrick, Lower Susquehanna riverkeeper, said it means calling on lawmakers.
“We have an incredibly diverse population who love the river,” he said. “We can actually have a major effect.”
With the Cheseapeake Bay initiative, steps have been taken to clean up the river.
Tanya Dierolf, outreach coordinator of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, noted the decrease in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments from the river.
Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are point and non-point source pollutants that can impair water quality.
So that’s the good news.
Still, studies have shown that bass numbers have steadily decreased on the river in the past decade.
Minimum daily dissolved oxygen concentration and pH do not meet established criteria for protected use of warm water fisheries. In addition, dissolved phosphorous levels have brought increased algae growth, depleting the stream’s oxygen levels.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission electrofishing crews traveled to each of the four sections of the river last summer to catch smallmouths.
In three areas of the river – the West Branch, middle Susquehanna from Sunbury to York Haven, and lower Susquehanna from York Haven to Holtwood – catch rates were below the long-term average.
The West Branch catch rate was less than one bass per 50 meters, well below the long-term average of two bass per 50 meters.
The North Branch, by contrast, revealed a catch rate of 13 bass per 50 meters, well above the average of six.
Arway and other officials are calling on citizens and businesses to contact the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to declare the river impaired and initiate a restoration plan.
Dierolf urged people to advocate on behalf of the river.
“Do what you are comfortable doing. Get people acquainted with the river,” she said.
Anglers were urged to document their fish catches, while still other users of the river should keep records of what they see going on with the stream.