Chesapeake Bay Foundation Sounds Alarm on Susquehanna River

The smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River are sick.  Anglers have been finding diseased and dying fish in the Susquehanna for years and the smallmouth bass population is suffering.  “Smallmouth bass are the canary in the coal mine for the bay’s rivers,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation president Will Baker. 

The CBF has just released a 28-page report, which documents what they are calling a perfect storm of pollution, parasites and warming water temperatures. 

This graphic from the CBF report shows where diseased and dying smallmouth bass have been found.

This graphic from the CBF report shows where diseased and dying smallmouth bass have been found.

“In the Susquehanna River, especially, state and federal officials must move immediately to reduce pollution and to formally designate the river as impaired under the authority of the federal Clean Water Act,” Baker said on a Thursday conference call with reporters from throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.   

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did not designated the Susquehanna as impaired when it released its Integrated Waters report in January, but the agency is calling for a comprehensive, year-long study of the Susquehanna to conclusively determine what is ailing the smallmouth bass. 

But the CBF and Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission are calling on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reverse the state’s decision based on its authority under the aforementioned Clean Water Act. 

Such a designation for a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River, from Sunbury to the Maryland state line, would allow for the immediate implementation of an action plan.  As Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission executive director John Arway explained, they don’t want to be studying the river until the last fish dies.

Advocates Want Treatment, Not Just Testing of Susquehanna

The entire Susquehanna River basin will be the subject of extensive testing and sampling for the remainder of 2013.  The Department of Environmental Protection’s new 2013 Susquehanna River Sampling Plan calls for tests to be run on water quality, sediments, pesticides and fish.  It’s all in hopes of finally putting to rest the mystery surrounding diseased and dying smallmouth bass. 

The public can track the DEP’s ongoing analysis online.   

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission executive director John Arway tells Radio PA the DEP’s plan recognizes the Susquehanna is sick and in need of study, but doesn’t do anything to start cleaning up the river. 

“We need to begin treating the river, we need to put a plan together to fix the river while we continue to do the kind of studies the DEP is proposing,” Arway says. 

Distressed smallmouth bass first started turning up in the Susquehanna in 2005, and while no exact cause has been pinpointed Arway says there are solid theories that can be acted upon now

For instance, Arway says, they’ve noticed high levels of nutrient runoff from farms and lawns.  “A lot of our soils were oversaturated with those nutrients and they’re getting into the river causing aquatic plants – the algae – to grow, which takes the oxygen out of the water and causes stress to the young bass that live in the river.”

“If you go to our boat launches… you’ll see maybe only one or two boat trailers when they used to be packed with boat trailers before,” Arway says, noting that some anglers refuse to fish the river anymore.  The Susquehanna River used to be a haven for smallmouth bass fishermen. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation had a similar reaction to the DEP’s 2013 Susquehanna River Sampling Plan. 

(photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)

Bill Would Regulate Non-farm Fertilizer to Improve Water Quality

A state senator who also chairs the Chesapeake Bay Commission has introduced a bill to set limits on non-farm fertilizers in Pennsylvania.    Senator Mike Brubaker’s (R-Lanc) bill would require all professional fertilizer applicators to be certified, setting limits on applications to lawns, golf courses and athletic fields.

Brubaker says the science is perfectly clear, that when you apply the appropriate amount of fertilizer to commercial lawns and residential lawns, then water quality is improved. The goal is to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water and ultimately the Bay.  He says similar legislation has already been enacted in Maryland and New Jersey.

He says people’s fertilization habits don’t need to change if a soil test shows the turf needs nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. He says SB 1191 is aimed at getting the correct amount applied.

Senator Brubaker says they have been working with the professional lawn care industry in drafting the bill and they’re getting input from golf courses as well.

He says Pennsylvania and other states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed are under a federal court mandate to reduce the levels of pollution getting into the bay. He believes regulatory changes need to occur in some cases in order to allow the state to meet those limits.

Brubaker says they have to address how turf grass is fertilized, because the number one land use in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is turf grass, including cemeteries, residential lawns, commercial lawns, golf courses and football fields.

The bill would not apply to farmers, who have been under nutrient management law for decades. It would also not apply to homeowners who are using fertilizer on their lawns.  Senator Brubaker says they will attempt to deal with those residential applications through education.