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Susquehanna River: Making the Case for Impairment

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A smallmouth bass was found in the Susquehanna River with a large cancerous tumor. Photo by John Arway.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) image on May 4 of a smallmouth bass with a significant malignant tumor on its lip, left anglers and those who care about water quality speechless.

The fish was caught in November of last year on the Susquehanna River near Duncannon, PA. The PFBC said it is the first time this type of cancer was found on a smallmouth bass in the Commonwealth.

The discovery is another find that illustrates a world-class fishery is suffering.

Anglers first reported diseased and dying smallmouth bass in the river in 2005. Young-of-the-year and adult bass continue to bear sores and lesions, and the population continues to plummet. Researchers have also been finding intersex fish—adult male bass with female eggs in their testes—since the early 2000s.

Now, a fish with cancer.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the PFBC and others believe that 98 miles of the lower Susquehanna River must be declared impaired, so that the timeline for its recovery can begin. The Susquehanna provides half of the fresh water that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has resisted recommending an impaired listing of the river, citing a lack of definitive scientific evidence of the source and cause of the smallmouth bass problem.

CBF's report Angling for Healthier Rivers, concluded that Commonwealth smallmouth bass are threatened by a "perfect storm" of high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, pesticides, parasites, and hormones in animal and human waste. They also face endocrine disrupting chemicals found in certain herbicides, cosmetics, detergents and medicines.

According to DEP, sediment and nutrient pollution significantly damage 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania's rivers and streams, including those which drain into the Susquehanna. Agriculture is the largest source.

But, there is a plan.

In 2010, EPA established science-based limits on the pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. States also developed individual plans to achieve those limits and committed to two-year milestones that outline the actions they will take to achieve success. EPA promised consequences for failure. Together, the limits, plans, and milestones make up the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Pennsylvania must accelerate progress if it is to have 60 percent of the pollution reduction practices in place by 2017 and 100 percent by 2025. The Commonwealth's nitrogen and sediment pollution reduction commitments from agriculture and urban polluted runoff are considerably off-track. Pennsylvania appears to be on track to meet its phosphorus reduction goal.

It is imperative that the Commonwealth achieve the pollution reduction goals in the Clean Water Blueprint. A healthy Chesapeake Bay does not exist without a healthy Susquehanna flowing into it.

CBF makes the analogy of smallmouth bass and pollution in the Susquehanna to that of canaries in the coal mines. Caged canaries killed by otherwise undetectable deadly gas, were harbingers of a treacherous environment and miners knew to get out.

CBF and others concerned about the water quality of the Susquehanna and the fishery, would hope that significant scientific data that triggers river impairment and improvement, catches up to the power of images of smallmouth bass with open sores and tumors.

Reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and achieving the goals in the Clean Water Blueprint will not solve the smallmouth bass issue, but doing so will improve water quality and reduce at least one source of stress on the fishery. It will also result in a $6.2 billion return on investment for the Commonwealth.

The smallmouth bass issue is a physical manifestation of the challenges many of Pennsylvania's rivers and streams face. Restoring and protecting our waters will have meaningful impacts to our economy, health, and quality of life.

—B.J. Small, CBF's Pennsylvania Media and Communications Coordinator

Are you a resident of Pennsylvania? Make your voice heard, and tell your County Commissioners to pass a resolution saying Clean Water Counts in Pennsylvania!

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