Despite a preponderance of problems affecting fish in the main stem of the Susquehanna River and to the consternation of anglers and clean-river advocates, the secretary of the state's environmental agency did not designate the waterway as impaired in a recent report to the federal government.
State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Krancer announced last week that DEP submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency its final 2012 Integrated Waters report, a biannual assessment of the state's rivers and streams required by the federal Clean Water Act.
The report describes the health of various waterways in the state and, where needed, the state proposes listing waterways as impaired.
Our final report is firmly grounded in sound science, and we expect that EPA will agree with it based on the science presented, Krancer said. Based on the science and law, we do not believe that the main stem of Susquehanna River should be proposed as impaired under the Clean Water Act.
While he recognized that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and others had requested that DEP propose to label the 98-mile stretch of river impaired, Krancer said that view is based on very limited, piecemeal data and is not supported by the existing data or the law.
In particular, we recognize that there are issues facing smallmouth bass, such as what is called young-of-year die-offs, lesions on adult bass and inter-sexing of the species, Krancer said. Inter-sexed fish are males with female characteristics, and young-of-year are recently hatched bass.
The actual cause of these issues has not yet been determined or linked to any particular water-quality issue, but DEP is dedicated to finding the answer through a disciplined scientific approach, he said.
Norm Gavlick, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commissioner representing the Northeast Region, said the issue of whether Krancer should have designated the main stem of the Susquehanna impaired has been a battle we've been fighting with him for the better part of a year.
Gavlick, of Kingston, said there were huge die-offs of smallmouth bass in 2007, 2009 and 2010. As the river runs low and temperatures run high, fish get more stressed, and that factors in to the die-offs. Some have been seen in the north branch, where the river is narrower and deeper, but it hasn't been nearly as bad as the southern branch, which is wider and shallower.
As for the root of the problem, everything seems to be pointing toward nutrient runoff, most probably from fertilizer used on farms, Gavlick said.
Gavlick said it's likely that DEP heads don't want to declare the main stem impaired because if they do, the federal government steps in and puts them under time frame requirements to address the problems. They would have to dedicate staff and funding at a time when the budget is already stressed – that probably has something to do with it.
Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it's indisputable that the smallmouth bass population in the lower Susquehanna River is suffering from unprecedented disease and die-offs.
Campbell said findings by state and federal fishery scientists are so significant and widespread that some experts and anglers speculate the possibility of a collapse of this once world renowned fishery. Addressing this problem is not only an environmental concern but one of considerable economic importance to the region.
Krancer said DEP takes concerns expressed about the Susquehanna very seriously and we are doing something about it. We will be taking, separately, a comprehensive and strategic approach to ensure that the Susquehanna River is protected.
He said his staff will work with the PFBC, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey to ensure water quality and aquatic life are being protected. Last summer, agency staff spent 187 combined days on the river collecting hundreds of samples to characterize the water quality in the Susquehanna and its tributaries, he said.
Our scientists report that there does not appear to be any demonstrated cause and effect between water quality and the young-of-year die-offs, which is contrary to what the Fish and Boat Commission has suggested, is happening in tributaries outside of the Susquehanna, including the Delaware and Ohio river basins, Krancer said. Within the Susquehanna River, this condition has appeared in a few tributaries and the impact is limited to smallmouth bass.
Our scientists also tell me that no cause and effect can be established right now between water quality and the tumors and lesions found on adult bass. It is not at this point clear how prevalent the tumors and inter-sex conditions are throughout the river, nor if they are related to the young-of-year die-offs, Krancer said, noting that the PFBC has not reported any diseased young-of-year in the lower Susquehanna this past summer.
Krancer said DEP will continue water sampling and will continue to look at water-quality issues facing the river, such as pesticide runoff; hormone-disrupting compounds and nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and consult with experts
Krancer also said a veteran DEP staff member will serve as Susquehanna River coordinator to ensure the continuing efforts with the river happen efficiently and with scientific rigor. Should the data indicate that a proposed impairment listing is called for in the Susquehanna or any waterway, we would do so.
Campbell, however, said the cause and source of the problems affecting the smallmouth bass do not have to be identified for an impairment to exist. An impairment designation would ensure that a solution to the problem will be found, he said.
John Arway, executive director of the PFBC, said he is pleased that Krancer acknowledged that the Susquehanna is in need of attention and that he is committing additional resources to continue investigations begun by PFBC staff scientists, whom he said initially discovered and continue to document disease and water quality problems. But he is greatly concerned those efforts may fall short of what is needed to identify and develop a plan to correct the problems.
DEP affirms that their decision is ‘firmly grounded in sound science' but has been unwilling to openly reveal the science that guides them to the decision not to list the river as impaired, Arway said.
The PFBC has been fully transparent with its information about every study that we and others have done over the course of the past 20 years. All that we ask is for DEP to open their files in much the same way since Aristotle defined science as the body of reliable knowledge that can be logically and rationally explained. It therefore involves the totality of evidence and the discussion cannot continue unless DEP is forthcoming with their data, he said.
Arway said PFBC staff and Board of Commissioners continue to believe that there is sufficient evidence to support an impairment listing for the 98 miles of the Susquehanna River from Sunbury to Holtwood.
The collapse of the smallmouth bass population supports an ecological impairment designation and the associated decline in sport fishing and boating continues to support a recreational use impairment designation. To refuse to accept and recognize these facts suggests that other factors associated with these designations may drive the decision not to list, Arway said.
Arway advised that those who disagree with Krancer's decision not to list the river as impaired contact their U.S. representatives and senators to appeal to the EPA, which has final oversight of this listing decision.
David Sternberg, press officer for the EPA's Philadelphia office, said the agency received DEP's report on Jan. 28 and has 30 days to review it before approving or disapproving it.
While it is not a frequent occurrence, EPA has made additions to the lists of impaired waterways in some cases. One example that I'm aware of is the tidal waters to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, Sternberg said.
In addition, EPA has provided numerous comments to draft listings by the states which have resulted in modifications to their lists of impaired waterways, he said.