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Our River: The West Branch of the Susquehanna

April 29, 2008
Not enough can be said about the role that water plays in our life. Water is life and rivers are the lifelines that connect communities. Since the amount of water is not increasing, but the population that relies on that water is growing fast, humans are putting increasing pressure on this limited resource. Accordingly, water has become a major source of conflict, and some believe that the next world war will not be fought over land, but over water. In many parts of the world both the availability and the quality of water are steadily declining. Developmental pressure, changes in the land-use practices and climate change are contributing to deterioration of the quality of water in the world, including the water in our own backyard — Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is renowned for its natural beauty, environmental resources including rivers, and endless possibilities for outdoor recreational opportunities. People living in the heartland of Pennsylvania are endowed with a fair amount of surface water and groundwater. In that sense, we are truly blessed. The major source of our water in central Pennsylvania is the West Branch of Susquehanna River and its numerous tributaries. Water in the West Branch is the thread that connects over half a million people living within its 3,345 squre miles of watershed that lies upstream of Lock Haven and drains parts of 12 counties. The West Branch is also a natural link that connects our two campuses at Lock Haven and Clearfield. In recognition of her breathtaking beauty, the West Branch of Susquehanna River was named the "River of the Year" in 2005 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, in the same year, the Susquehanna River that includes the West Branch was also named "America’s Most Endangered River" by American Rivers, a national conservation organization. It begs the question, how can the "River of the Year" be the "Most Endangered River" in the same year? The answer lies in the fact that the most beautiful river is seriously ill. We need to work tirelessly to cure her ill so that she can again be the most beautiful and the healthiest river that can serve us well in years to come.

In terms of the amount and availability, we have enough water to meet the needs of our current population and projected population growth in the future in central Pennsylvania. We, however, face a serious challenge in term of the quality of water in the West Branch of Susquehanna River and her tributaries. The poor quality of water in our rivers in central Pennsylvania poses a serious economic and aesthetic challenge not only to the people living here, but also to the people living downstream of us. As the West Branch flows downstream and joins the North Branch of Susquehanna before entering the Chesapeake Bay, the river carries an unhealthy dose of dissolved chemicals to the bay. In that sense, we all live downstream in the Chesapeake Bay — the largest estuary in the U.S., which is the home to unique ecosystems and serves as an economic powerhouse.

The Susquehanna River contributes over half of the total discharge to the Chesapeake Bay. Similarly, this river also contributes over 40 percent, 20 percent and 21 percent of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollutions to the bay, respectively. The major sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollutions of the bay include agricultural run-off, wastewater discharge facilities, septic tanks and urban run-off in the entire watershed. The agricultural run-off is the major sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution to our rivers, which is followed by the sewage treatment plants. The Susquehanna River, including the West Branch, receives a huge amount of raw and poorly treated sewage that contributes to the nutrient pollution problem in the Chesapeake Bay.

In addition to the nutrients and sediments, the Susquehanna River discharges over six tons of toxic metals annually to the bay, parts of which are contributed by the West Branch. In fact, the major sources of pollution of the West Branch of Susquehanna is not nutrients, but acid mine drainage (AMD) that contains toxic metals. Over 1,000 river miles in the upper reaches of the West Branch of Susquehanna River are impaired by AMD pollution. AMD is a pervasive legacy of unregulated coal mining activities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the U.S. AMD-impacted rivers are laden with dissolved various metals, acidity and deposition of yellow boy that render the water unsuitable for aquatic life. The major streams and tributaries of the West Branch that are severely impacted by AMD include Anderson Creek, Chest Creek, Clearfield Creek, Moshannon Creek, Mosquito Creek, Beech Creek, Kettle Creek, Babb Creek, Loyalsock Creek and Bennett Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek. The total cost for treatment of the acid mine lands (totaling over 285, 000 acres) and AMD impacted streams in Pennsylvania (totaling over 3,000 river miles) will exceed $16 billion and will take several decades. Millions of dollars have been spent over the last few decades for various types of AMD treatment facilities, but the end is not in sight. Water pollution is an impediment to the economic growth and the quality of life in cental Pennsylvania region.

Although AMD is by far the most serious water quality impairment for the West Branch of Susquehanna River and its tributaries, agricultural pollution (nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediments) is the second largest sources of impairment. Wastewater discharge and urban run-off also contribute to the nutrient and sediment pollutions. Nutrient and sediment pollution are the major concerns for the Chesapeake Bay, which has been severely impacted by these pollutions. Over 40 percent of the bay water forms the "Dead Zone," where no fish and other aquatic life can survive.

Since the mid 1980s, six states (New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Deleware, Virginia and West Virginia) that are parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and several federal agencies took initiatives to clean up the bay. The latest initiative is termed as the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement.

Under this agreement, Pennsylvania set the goal to reduce the amount of nitrogen loading in its rivers that drain to the bay from 112 million pounds to 72 million pounds and phosphorus loading from 3.5 million pounds to 2.3 million pounds by 2010. After seven years of the agreement, the goal is far from fulfilled. In fact, the report cards for the bay in terms of nutrient and sediment pollution for the last several years have been far from satisfactory.

It is unlikely that Pennsylvania and other states involved will be able to accomplish the set goal by 2010. The main obstacles to the cleanup efforts include lack of coordination and commitments in Washington, D.C., lack of federal and state funds required to improve the outdated sewage treatment facilities (123 in Pennsylvania) and allegations among the stakeholders against each other. For example, although agriculture remains the major contributor of sediment and nutrient pollutions, there is a federal and state mandate against sewage treatment plants to upgrade the existing facilities without providing necessary funds from the state and federal government. For example, many local governments and municipalities feel that they are being targeted unfairly. As a consequence, many of the local municipalities decided to file a lawsuit against the state government challenging this mandate. It is not to say that the outdated sewage treatment plants do not need to improve their technology — they obviously do. For example, as per the federal and state mandate, the total maximum load of nitrogen in sewage effluent that is discharged to rivers should not exceed 3 mg/L. This amount is among the worst in central Pennsylvania. The farmers, too, need to step up to the plate and implement the best management practices that will help reduce sediment and nutrient run-off from their croplands. Many streams in central Pennsylvania are impacted by high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment throughout the year, especially following heavy rain storms.

Should the Chesapeake Bay cleanup be a priority issue for the people living in the West Branch of Susquehanna River watershed? The answer is yes, absolutely. The Chesapeake Bay is a true national treasure and a unique ecosystem that it supports is a boon to our economy. Many businesses in central Pennsylvania are dependent on the crabs and fishes from the bay. Many Pennsylvanians enjoy recreational opportunities available in and around the bay. Furthermore, a large share of pollutants that impair the bay originates in our own backyards; and it is our moral obligation to do our parts, and to foot a fair share of the bill for the cleanup.

Most importantly, we need to clean our own rivers to improve the quality of life and the economy of our region. It is only through a cleaner environment that we will be able to reclaim the true glory of the sparking river that nestles in the heartland of Pennsylvania. Together we can transform the West Branch of Susquehanna River from being an impaired body of lifeless water into a true gem that bustles with life. Only then we can be proud to call our river the "River of the Country."

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Mohamed Khalequzzaman is associate Professor/department chair for the Lock Haven University Geology and Physics Department.


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