The job title “riverkeeper” could quite possibly be the coolest title ever and the duties attached to it aren’t too shabby either. Protecting our waterways, confronting polluters, producing CDs, and educating youth are just some of the responsibilities John Zaktansky has taken on as the official riverkeeper with the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, Inc (MSRKA).
Oddly, Zaktanksy almost missed the boat of becoming the riverkeeper. “I actually turned it down at first because I was afraid of the change but it kept calling to me. I couldn’t sleep.” He had been a newspaper journalist and editor for many years, so this would be a completely different career direction. It was a sojourn outside that brought him to a decision. As he stared at an eagle’s nest near his house, he finally found his answer. “I thought, ‘Who is going to be the voice for these creatures?’ and ultimately, I took the leap,” said Zaktansky. “It was scary jumping from what I knew to running a nonprofit.”
After over two years on the job, Zaktansky has already made a significant impact. Just ask Zach Ashton. The Washingtonville man had unusable tap water, which was dramatically impacting his quality of life.
“It smelled like rotten eggs in sulfur,” says Ashton. Worse than the smell was that Ashton and his two dogs couldn’t drink the water. Showers, cleaning dishes and bathing his dogs was impossible. That made it necessary to buy bottled water and Ashton often took showers elsewhere.
Zaktansky and Ashton met randomly. Zaktansky was canvassing Ashton’s neighborhood looking for residents who had water issues, while Ashton was looking for his escaped dog. When the two started a roadside conversation, Zaktansky said he could help with Ashton’s water situation.
“When I heard his title. I thought, ‘Go ahead and do what you want.’ I trusted him. It was a blessing meeting him,” says Ashton.
Almost six months ago, Zaktansky had a water treatment system installed for free in Ashton’s home.
The grateful man says, “I am able to get my dogs clean water from the faucet without buying bottled water and I can give them baths now.” Ashton adds, “The main thing was the worry. Think about how often you use your water. [There were times] when I came home and didn’t have a case of water. It took a lot of stress off me.”
Ashton’s water treatment system was funded as the result of a big environmental win in 2021. It was covered by funding from a settlement reached between MSRKA and Talen Energy, which operates the Montour Coal Power Plant in Washingtonville. “We got to an agreement where the Sierra Club wanted a date to stop burning coal at the plant. We were concerned with the [coal] ash pit there and the potential contamination for the local community. As a part of this agreement, there will be quarterly water testing in nearby creeks for at least three decades. We obtained funding we have used to test residential wells and install treatment systems where necessary and a new background well is being used to better determine what contamination is happening,” says Zaktansky.
“We even were able to build some long-term protections for the nearby Montour Preserve into the agreement with the goal of keeping it around for generations to come.”
As for the ultimate cause of Ashton’s water issues, data is still being collected.
“We don’t know that yet. John tested the creek in the backyard and has been so consistent [in doing that] and he is always checking up to see if everything is still good,” says Ashton.
MSRKA and Zaktansky are responsible for the middle Susquehanna region, which includes 19 counties in Northeastern and North Central Pennsylvania and covers all the land and waterways that drain into both branches of the river.
“It all feeds into the river in one way or the other, whether on the surface or through groundwater,” Zaktansky notes.
Zaktansky spent his youth on a Watsontown farm, active with Scouting and earning the Eagle Scout award at age 15.
“We were outdoors all the time growing up. We were hunting, fishing, camping and horseback riding for as long as I can remember,” he says.
Today, the riverkeeper’s love for all things outdoors has propelled him to engage the region’s youth with nature.
“We want to replace the video game controllers with fishing poles and kayak paddles,” Zaktansky explains.
Helping Engage our River’s Youth with Nature (HERYN) does just that. “We started it from scratch last year from a PA Fish and Boat Commission grant. People really rallied behind us – sports shops and local individuals” says Zaktansky.
Held at Central PA Wesleyan Campground near New Columbia, 73 kids aged 10-13 years old graduated from the program. Brother and sister, respectively, Keegan and Skylar Crosby were two of them. “I like the interactive activities and that we got to actually fish and kayak,” says Keegan. Skylar adds,“I learned more about pollution. I learned about different kinds of fish. I learned about kayaking safety, like always having a whistle in case you get in trouble.”
Zaktansky also teaches children in a floating classroom aboard the Hiawatha Paddlewheel Riverboat. “It’s a huge asset. What better classroom is there than being on the river on a paddlewheel boat?” says the riverkeeper. “We have experts come on with hands-on instruction. We had lots of repeats because they enjoyed the sessions. We did topics on raptors and history based. This year we have a session on otters, beavers and mink.”
Another way Zaktansky is educating people across the watershed is via a blog feed that includes hundreds of stories, columns and investigative reports about issues impacting our waterways along with producing Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Podcast episodes interviewing people who share a passion for our aquatic resources (many of the stories are compiled in a book, “Sentinels of the Susquehanna: Volume 1,” which can be purchased on the MSRKA website or Amazon.com).
In order for MSRKA to continue outreach efforts, Zaktansky must do fundraising. That has included producing and selling CD’s with a compilation of local musicians who sing about the river. “Songs of the Susquehanna Volume 1” was released in 2021 and “Songs of the Susquehanna Volume 2” was recently released. Both are available for sale on the MSRKA’s website. The website also offers visitors a chance to donate to the organization.
If that weren’t enough. The riverkeeper is also addressing big environmental issues like acid mine drainage, fracking and the alarming accumulation of microplastics in local fish. Zakatansky says, “When people hear environmentalist, they think of a tree hugging hippy. I hate to even use the word environmentalist.” We at WBL are content to just call him our riverkeeper.