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Debris issues cause fish problems at Williamsport dam

The dam on the Susquehanna River in Williamsport. SUN-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Like a growing number of people, angler Mark Yeagle is concerned about debris that continually is blocking fish passage along a ladder structure at the Williamsport dam on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

“For the past three years, I have been contacting both the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources asking them to clean the ladder out so that our fish can move freely throughout our river system and increase the quality of fishing upstream,” he said. “It’s very sad to see the fish ladder packed with hundreds of game fish and carp stuck inside concrete cells continuously trying to jump and squeeze up what small amount of water manages to actually enter the ladder.”

​More recently, he contacted the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association for help in addressing the issue.

“DCNR’s Tiadaghton office in Waterville is responsible for maintaining the dam,” said Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky. “I spoke with staff there nearly a year ago who promised to get the dam cleaned out. Unfortunately, it continues to be a problem. I offered to connect volunteers with DCNR to help keep the passageway clean, but I was told volunteers are not allowed to help with this project due to liability issues.”

“I was down there two days ago and there were so many fish in the top two cells that their fins were actually out of the water and at many points you couldn’t see the bottom of the cells,” said Yeagle. “You would think that the two agencies who manage our fish and govern over the laws that go with them would step up and do their part to ensure healthy flow of fresh fish upstream.”

“To me, it looks rather clear of debris compared to other years, but there is still no evidence of fish passing the top grate. I am guessing I can only see about 25 percent of the grate, though,” relayed Kinney after his visit. “You can notice a large presence of bass, walleye and carp below the top grate in the top chamber compared to none visible above the grate.”

Zaktansky has reached out to the DCNR’s Tiadaghton office a couple of times lately, leaving a voicemail for Luke Ulsamer to discuss the situation and figure out a realistic solution.

“I know recent stories have suggested DCNR is struggling with resources and financial hurdles, and I am sure this specific office is overwhelmed with tasks and responsibilities right now,” said Zaktansky. “However, debris build-up has been an issue at this passageway for quite a long time. When I talk with people in the community about this, they typically laugh and say it has been a problem since the passageway was built. We are interested in working collaboratively to find a realistic solution to help these fish move more freely around the dam.”

How DCNR handles this situation is under more of a microscope than usual, according to Zaktansky, after the agency announced plans to build a $7 million fish passageway downriver near Sunbury starting next year.

“One of the big concerns is whether DCNR will have the manpower and other resources to properly manage this new passageway project once it is installed with so much already invested in the inflatable dam process at the same location,” said Zaktansky. “While this newly proposed passageway may be different than the one in Williamsport, I think an improved track record of debris management at the Williamsport site will go a long way to boosting confidence in what is being planned in Sunbury.”

The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association serves an 11,000-square-mile watershed of the Susquehanna River, including Sullivan, Lycoming, Clinton, Union and Northumberland counties. Read more at www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org.

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