Remember when the Susquehanna River earned its first-ever ranking as America’s most endangered river?
It was April, 2005, and the uproar was significant. To be clear, the river that snakes the breadth of Luzerne County had been on the endangered list two prior years, once ranked at No. 7 in 1988 and again at No. 5 in 1991. But this was the first year the 444-mile waterway topped the chart.
The conservation group American Rivers deemed the ranking a result of a curious confluence: Proposed cuts in state and federal funding to clean up waterways like the Susquehanna, the long-neglected problem of raw sewage periodically finding its way in to the river when heavy rains overwhelmed treatment plants, and the expected application by Luzerne County for a permit to build an inflatable dam before said sewage and acid mine run off were cleaned up, potentially creating a seasonal lake of crud.
Since then, the river made the annual list two more times: It hit No. 1 again in 2011 amid concerns drinking water for about 6 million people would be threatened by “poorly regulated” natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and No. 3 in 2016 over concerns of whether a company running a Maryland dam would be held legally accountable for pollution.
Here’s the thing: Getting on the list doesn’t mean it is among the nation’s most polluted rivers. It doesn’t mean you can walk bank to bank on trash, or ignite the surface, or even that it’s unsafe to fish or swim. American Rivers has routinely made that point. The goal has always been to call attention to an immediate threat to waterways deemed important as drinking supply, economic engine and/or conservation bastion.
Yet the reaction to that first time as the most endangered river in 2005 remains a problem with this approach: People take the ranking out of context, using it — at least in the case of the Susquehanna — as an excuse for steering clear of the waterway. Look how bad it is. Who could possibly want to fish or boat in it, or linger on its shores?
But much of that is balderdash, people in the know insist. Water quality in the river that runs through us is much improved in the past 50 years. It is an asset, not a liability; a quality-of-life lure, not a repellent.
One of the most common reactions of people who paddle the river for the first time is surprise at how much cleaner it is than they expected, and real joy at the connection it offers with nature and wildlife thanks to the citing of bear cubs, peregrine falcons, bald eagles or blue herons.
That’s what Riverfest, in its third and final day today, is all about. You can get to know the river as it really is, not as you imagine it.
If you haven’t already, go to Nesbitt Park and see for yourself. There is a lot to do, a lot of people eager to offer environmental information and first-hand sampling of wildlife. There’s those long, elegant dragonboats powered by 20 people trying to paddle in perfect unison.
There is, in short, a river worthy revisiting.