A recent newspaper story about efforts to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay noted Pennsylvania does not have frontage on the bay. That is not quite accurate, unless one is a real estate seller.
The statement enhances a disconnect between the huge glacier-made estuary to our south and the repast many of us enjoy at local crab shacks well inland from the bay. For several million of us, the reconnection is the Susquehanna River.
The approximately 450-mile waterway provides drinking water for more than four million customers in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, before expending itself to contribute more than half the water that is the Chesapeake Bay.
Its watershed is a broad system of smaller rivers and streams cutting a broad north-south swath across nearly half the Keystone State. Through that system, the Susquehanna collects stormwater and irrigation runoff from thousands of farms and millions of residential lawns, as well as a share of the millions of tons of toxic waste Pennsylvania industries annually pour into the state’s water.
A report published in June by the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, titled “Wasting our Waters,” tells of more than 10 million tons of toxic chemicals dumped in Pennsylvania waterways in 2012, placing the Keystone State in the top 10 among deliberate polluters.
Rivers and streams also pull water from below the land surface, and along with it, anything else that has been laid upon or beneath where we walk. The poisonous recipe can include fracking chemicals used to produce natural gas, fertilizer used to grow crops and lawns, and pharmaceuticals we exude from our bodies to be washed through wastewater treatment plants so far technologically incapable of removing them.
Several years ago while on a hike in the Maine woods, a friend and I happened upon what once had been a stream-side cabin, its log frame long since fallen and converted to forest fertilizer. Only the stone foundation remained, including a part indicating a room over the stream. My friend was surprised to see evidence of early “indoor facilities,” including an early version of automatic flush.
The cabin had been constructed in the early 1800s, possibly earlier, when the country was being settled. There likely was no one living near enough downstream to know what someone upstream had put in the water.
Times have changed. Unlike whoever built that cabin in the woods, nearly all of us now are well within range of whatever an upstream user wishes to dump in the river.
In the lower Susquehanna River and upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay, there is growing evidence that agriculture and lawn run-offs are resulting in cancerous lesions on young smallmouth bass, and in male fish being found with eggs in their testes – boy fish and girl fish in a single body.
Cleaning up the problem will not be easy. When six states, the District of Columbia and the EPA signed an agreement called the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, 21 state attorneys general and several other agencies representing industrial polluters sued in federal court to block the pact.
The plan essentially is a “pollution diet” to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering the bay. Apparently, some polluters fear the Chesapeake Bay plan could be successful and embolden other states to enact similar restrictions on industrial, including agricultural, pollution.
It is easy to think a few miles can insulate our downstream neighbors from the effects of our upstream activities, but the truth is the only way to clean up the Chesapeake Bay is to clean up the rivers that feed it.
We all are downstream of someone.