WILKES-BARRE — Local experts agree — the Susquehanna River’s environmental health is improving.
Brian Mangan, a professor of environmental science and biology at King’s College, has spent his entire scientific career studying the Susquehanna River. That 32-year career includes studying water quality, insects, fish and contaminants.
“When folks ask me what kind of scientist I am, I tell them a river ecologist, but I guess I’m actually a Susquehanna River ecologist since I’ve never studied any other river,” Mangan said.
Mangan said his three decades of data has measured the river’s water quality. He was unable to provide his data to the Times Leader, as he is preparing a monograph to publish his findings in scientific journals, but he said numbers show “general improvements” in water quality.
Mangan partially attributed those improvements to abandoned mine drainage releasing less amounts of iron and sulfates in the water.
As a result of the improved water quality, Mangan said certain fish and mayflies have begun to surge in numbers. Vincent Cotrone, an urban forester with Penn State Extension, has seen similar improvements.
“I can tell you over the last 20 years, even the last 50, the river’s gotten so much healthier, more productive biologically,” he said. “I always talk to people about when we see such a big mayfly hatch in the middle of the summer that closes down the bridge — it’s a good indicator of health of the river.”
Data from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) also indicates sediment and nutrient levels in the river are down. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection did a field study of the river in 2012, taking samples from the river near Harrisburg and analyzing the river’s pH levels, temperature and other scientific criteria.
DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly, however, warned that those numbers may not indicate the health of the river specifically in Luzerne County.
“While river and stream sampling reflects a cumulative summary of upstream water quality conditions, the distance from Luzerne County downstream to Harrisburg is too far and has too many tributaries and inflows that mix in the Susquehanna main stem to draw accurate conclusions of water quality that far upriver,” she said.
Mangan agreed, and called the river a “continuum” — by the time water from Luzerne County reaches Harrisburg, he said data might be loosely indicative of the local river at best.
Cotrone chalked up the river’s improving health to good regulations put in place, such as the Clean Water Act. Passed in the early 1970s, the law establishes a structure for regulating discharges into waterways. Cotrone has said he has heard concerns of what fracking near the Marcellus shale could do to the river, but he said he has not seen any direct evidence yet.
Progress has certainly been made with the health of the Susquehanna River, but issues still remain.
Mangan said researches like himself used to focus on environmental stressors. Now, that focus includes “sub-lethal effects” — conditions that don’t kill, but alter. One of those effects is a bizarre situation with the fish in the river. Mangan said studies have shown that over 90 percent of male smallmouth bass in the river are growing eggs in their testes.
“The intersex condition indicates that these males are being exposed to endocrine disrupting compounds that are feminizing them,” Mangan said. “These compounds are likely coming from places such as sewage treatment plants and agricultural runoff.”
Cotrone, of Kingston, also cited sewer overflows as a lingering issue for the Susquehanna. Cotrone explained that communities have been paved over repeatedly, which causes sewer systems to overload when it rains.
As a result, raw sewage runs into the river, adding pollutants and nutrients to the river.
“Is it (river) clean enough to swim in yet in the Wyoming Valley? No,” Cotrone said.
Pollution from debris and trash was another problem that Cotrone, who also serves as the president of the Riverfront Parks Committee, said still dogs the Susquehanna. The group focuses on environmental education, as well as pitching in to make sure the river is clean.
Cotrone said that includes picking up litter, handling invasive plants and planting new trees.
Cotrone recalled one cleanup that happened in the late 1990s. The river was low enough that about 2,000 tires were pulled from the river near the Black Diamond Bridge.
Invasive species have also made their homes in the river.
Mangan has been monitoring two invasive species in the river — the Asian Clam and the Rusty Crayfish.
“Both of these have the potential to change the ecology of the river,” Mangan said. “In fact, I have strong suspicions, based on crayfish data I collected in 2008 and 2013, that predation by Rusty Crayfish on eggs in smallmouth bass nests could be a significant contributor to the decline of bass downstream.”
Mangan compared the health of a river to a doctor testing the circulatory system of a patient — the river’s health can gauge how people treat the environment.
Mangan said that the biggest gain towards the river’s health “is to be made in the minds of people that live in the watershed.” That mentality caused Mangan to create the Susquehanna River Institute (SRI).
Mangan said he uses SRI as a base for education for graduate courses for area teachers. SRI offers courses that focus on the ecology of the river and the Chesapeake Bay, and serves as an “outpost for research about the river.”
Cotrone said it will take time for the Susquehanna River to clean itself. Along with the cleaning efforts and the regulations, Cotrone stressed that getting people to respect the river is important.
“If you use it, you respect it,” he said. “If people don’t respect the river, it’s going to get polluted again.”
Mangan referred to the old saying of “we all live downstream” with regards to the Susquehanna River — whatever is put into the river and how it is treated will inevitably makes it way downstream.
“We drink it, grow food in its floodplain, make most of our electricity in the watershed using its water, recreate on and in it, and discharge a lot of wastes into it,” Mangan said. “It is probably the most important natural resource in this area that we ignore on a regular basis.”