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The "War on Watermen"

Susquehanna Odyssey Is Testament to a Struggling River

The following first appeared in the York Daily Record.

River30
Andrew Phillips paddles near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant south of Harrisburg.

Andrew Phillips grew up a block from the Susquehanna River, in Selinsgrove. He watched bald eaglets in a nest that hung over the river and never got tired of exploring the "huge, magnificent vein" of water in his own backyard. In his senior year of high school, he and a friend kayaked the 120 miles from his home to the Chesapeake Bay.

But Andrew wanted to know more about the river he loves. So earlier this summer, he and a buddy, Mauricio Martinez, kayaked the entire 464 miles of the Susquehanna, from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where the river meets the Bay. It was the steamiest and stormiest two weeks of the season.

It was not an unusual feat for the adventurous, compassionate young man who says he'd "already drained the worry out of my family." When he's not studying environmental health at West Chester University or disappearing for days with his backpack, Andrew manages a community garden on campus.

The 20-year-old's odyssey down the living laboratory that is the Susquehanna River provides a true perspective of the problems, pleasures, and promises of a river in peril.

They found wildlife to be plentiful along the way, noting river otters, and more eagles than ducks. They were amazed that an American shad had gotten as far upriver as Harrisburg, although it was dead when they found it.

Mauricio caught a 42-inch muskellunge in Towanda Creek.

The kindness of others provided fresh, clean water and portaging help around some of the more difficult dams. Andrew and Mauricio were awed at how the pristine trickle in New York became the mighty Susquehanna and almost a mile wide at Harrisburg. It even flowed northward at the Pennsylvania-New York border. Both remember the joy of reaching the wide expanse of the bay at Havre de Grace.

In the downstream transformation of the initial, crystalline stream they also saw firsthand the problems that plague the river that flows 20 miles per day, 18 million gallons per minute at Havre de Grace, and provides half of the freshwater to the Bay.

Andrew noted that the river seems burdened by pollutants, especially sediment. He noticed the effects of streambank erosion while still in New York waters.

Once into agricultural areas of Pennsylvania, they stopped using small portable filters and switched to bottled drinking water. "We passed through miles and miles of cornfields on both sides of the river, and the water is greener, less transparent, and more difficult to see through," Andrew says. "The agricultural lands were obvious from the river, as the steeply-eroded, muddy banks, and lack of trees create the feeling of being exposed."

Agriculture is the largest source of water pollution in Pennsylvania and the cheapest to fix.

The Commonwealth's nitrogen and sediment pollution reduction commitments from agriculture and urban polluted runoff are considerably off-track.

Andrew and Mauricio also found that kayaking near dams like Safe Harbor, Holtwood, and Conowingo was brutal for the lack of current. They also took note of the water quality at the impoundments. "You take this pristine river and build a wall in front of it," Andrew remembers. "Sediment builds up, and you end up with this shallow, hot, stagnant reservoir that's really not conducive to any life."

Millions of shad historically swam hundreds of miles up the Susquehanna, which once boasted the largest shad spawning area on the East Coast. But because of dams, the shad's ability to reach spawning habitats has dropped 98 percent in the river basin. Fish ladders exist to try to relieve this problem, but fisheries managers admit they haven't been nearly as successful as hoped. Yet there is some good news: For 12 straight years Pennsylvania has led the nation in the number of dams removed from rivers and streams.

Andrew's adventure down the Susquehanna left him with a greater appreciation for that and all rivers. "They are living bodies themselves because of all the life that relies on them, is immersed in them, and revolves around them. This is our sacred space and deserves so much respect."

—Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director

The Susquehanna River is sick. Urge Governor Wolf and DEP to push for the Lower Susquehanna River to be on EPA's Impaired Waters list!

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