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)

Flooding Continues but Susquehanna River Receding

Goldsboro railroad underpass on 9/9.

Goldsboro railroad underpass on 9/9.

Flooding continued along the Susquehanna River, but  the water levels were dropping . The river reached  record levels at Wilkes Barre and other points north. The levels at Harrisburg and Marietta were the highest since Agnes hit in 1972.

The river reached its high points at Harrisburg and Marietta on Friday.   It reached 25.17 at Harrisburg Friday morning and should drop below flood stage later on Sunday. The river reached 58.16 feet at Marietta Friday morning and should drop below flood stage by Monday morning.   The flooding displaced thousands of people and caused devastating damage to homes and businesses along the river.

Flooded backyard near Goldsboro railroad underpass.

Flooded back yard in Goldsboro near railroad underpass.

Ben Pratt, Hydraulic Engineer with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, says the risk of flash flooding could rise again along streams and creeks if any thunderstorms hit affected areas in the next few days. He says that’s because those tributaries are still swollen with the rain that fell from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

Pratt says the Susquehanna should eventually get back to normal levels with little damage to the river. But in the short term, the quality of the water will continue to be affected as the flood flow works its way through the system.

Unofficial rainfall amounts posted by the National Weather Service for September 4-8 range from 3.28 inches in Renovo, Clinton County to 15.2 inches in Elizabethtown, Lancaster County. Dauphin County was also hit hard with totals ranging from 12 to nearly 14 inches and 14.7 inches was reported in Pine Grove, Schuylkill County.

a rooster and three hens

Chickens stroll down Goldsboro sidewalk after flood waters swamped their coop.

Many towns had to deal with small stream and creek flooding followed by river flooding. In Goldsboro, York County, more than two dozen homes along the river were flooded. The swollen Susquehanna forced Fishing Creek to back up, closing two of the main roads into the river town. The water also nearly filled a railroad underpass, blocking access to several homes and campsites along the river.

People with summer homes on the islands nearby will have to wait until the river begins to go down and debris flow eases, before they can safely access their properties by boat. One man watched along the river Friday morning. He said he had gone to his property on Shelley Island earlier in the week and moved valuables above the 2004 Hurricane Ivan flood level, but after returning, the forecast added another 5 feet to the crest. He was relieved when the forecast was revised down to 25.2 feet at Harrisburg, just a little less than a foot higher than Ivan.

Humans weren’t the only ones affected in Goldsboro. As the water inundated back yards, a rooster and three hens took to the sidewalk when their coop was flooded.

Not Out of the Woods Yet…

It came close, but the Susquehanna River never quite reached the top of the 41-foot levies that protect the city of Wilkes-Barre.  “The levee system worked pretty well.  There are still some questions about it over time,” says Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), who toured the damage this morning with Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA).  “The smaller communities that didn’t have that kind of protection – West Pittston comes to mind – they have very high water, sometimes as high as the second floor.” 

Stress on the levee system is a top concern for Luzerne County Commission chair Maryanne Petrilla, but there are others.  For instance: boils.  “The ground is so saturated that the river water is going under the levee and coming up in… we call it a boil, if you can imagine water boiling outside the ground.”  Local officials are combating the boils with truckloads of stone. 

For now, some 65-thousand Wilkes-Barre area residents remain under evacuation orders.  “We realize they want to come back home, but they just can’t, it’s not safe yet,” Petrilla stresses.  Also, it’s too early to talk damage assessments.  Petrilla says that will have to wait until next week. 

 Downriver in Dauphin County, the commissioners are already turning their attention to the recovery phase of emergency operations.  “We have teams that are going to be going out looking at infrastructure.  Starting Monday morning, the county’s engineering team will be looking at all of the bridges to make sure they are okay.  We’ve been working with PennDOT for an assessment on our local roads,” Dauphin County Commission chair Jeff Haste said at a Friday afternoon briefing. 

Haste says the recovery effort is going to be long, tedious and costly.  He also urged residents to use caution as they come back to assess the damage.  “Make sure the water has receded.  The water that is out there is toxic water.  Even when the water has gone down, there’s still going to be petroleum in there, there’s still going to be solid waste laying around.”  Two wastewater treatment plants disappeared in the floodwaters this week.     


A look at the flooding situation in Harrisburg, Dauphin County.


River Town Residents Prepare for Flooding

Flood waters on the Susquehanna near Goldsboro home.

Residents along the Susquehanna River had a busy morning Thursday, preparing as the water rose. In Goldsboro, York County, neighbors helped a man who recently had surgery move his possessions out of the basement. The wall by the window bore marks noting the floods that had hit the house before. But there wasn’t room for a mark for Agnes, because at that level, the water would reach his top floor.

Debris from overnight flash flooding at Goldsboro park.

Down the river at the railroad underpass, another man was watching the water rise. Water from Fishing Creek, backed up where it meets the Susquehanna River, had blocked the only road in. His campsite and boat were on the other side. A pizza shop nearby was closed as flood water crept closer to the building. People watching the rising water said if the flood hits levels predicted, it will sweep across the main road that leads into the borough.

PA Braces for Life-Threatening, Record-Breaking Floods

It’s a Level One situation at the PEMA emergency operations center in suburban Harrisburg.  That’s the highest level possible for a state disaster response.  “By comparison, 11-days ago, Hurricane Irene only reached a Level Two here in Pennsylvania,” Governor Tom Corbett said at an afternoon media briefing from the PEMA headquarters.  The last time the emergency operations center was operating at Level One was 9/11/01.   

Gov. Tom Corbett and PEMA director Glenn Cannon

Gov. Corbett and PEMA director Glenn Cannon brief the media on the flooding in central and northeastern PA.

Governor Corbett says the state faces a clear public health emergency.  “Sewage treatment plants, such as the one near Hershey, are underwater and no longer working,” Corbett says, “As you know flood water is toxic.”  The governor’s message was clear: stay out of the flood water unless you are being rescued. 

So far three deaths have been attributed to the flooding.  Two of those deaths are in Lancaster County; the third is in Dauphin County, though PEMA director Glenn Cannon says they are as of yet unconfirmed.  Almost every town along the Susquehanna River has experienced flooding, but the situation is expected to only get worse until the river crests

By Friday morning, 1,200 National Guard troops will have been activated.  400 of them are already assisting in the evacuation and protection of thousands of Wilkes-Barre residents, who are evacuating low-lying areas.  Governor Corbett has been in contact with federal officials, and says FEMA is flying in pallets full of water and MRE’s (meals, ready-to-eat).  The supplies are being dropped off at Ft. Indiantown Gap, and will be distributed to the county level as needed.

Remnants of Lee Cause Flooding in Pennsylvania, Rivers Could Hit Major Flood Levels

It has been a day of flash flooding, periods of drenching rain and water rescues for parts of the state, with some of the worst problems on either side of the Susquehanna.   The remnants of Tropical Storm Lee have been pushing streams and creeks over their banks and overloading drainage systems.  By mid-morning, some areas near Harrisburg had gotten almost 6 inches of rain, with 7 reported in Bethlehem and near Dover in York County.

Peter Young, warning coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in State College, says because the rain is associated with a tropical system, it has been coming in bands.  This means some areas are getting hit harder than others. Flood watches and warnings were issued for much of Central and Eastern Pennsylvania.

There is a risk of major flooding along the Susquehanna River if the forecast holds.  Ben Pratt, a Hydraulic engineer with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, says the river should crest at Harrisburg by Friday evening.

Major flooding is also possible in Marietta to the south and Wilkes Barre to the north. Pratt says people who have interests or live along the river need to pay close attention to the forecast.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has raised its readiness to level 2 at the Emergency Operation Center.  Officials have  brought in emergency preparedness liaison officers from key agencies such as the National Guard, State Police and PennDOT as they plan for the possibility of major flooding on the Susquehanna, Delaware and Juniata Rivers.