The Mighty Susquehanna

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We scrambled into our canoes, eager to begin our journey on the mighty Susquehanna. I remember Doug imploring us to rip our eyes away from the beautiful landscape and look beneath us – what did we see? Was it the murky, contaminated waters we had been warned about before beginning our adventure? Quite the contrary – the water was clear. Had it been in a water bottle, nobody would have been the wiser, and could have thought it came straight from the tap. But I was immediately overcome with disbelief. If this was the water flowing into the bay, why does this beautiful river have such a bad reputation?

An interaction between Nature and Culture unveils itself here. Our current means of obtaining sustenance is a reflection of our culture, which inevitably negates natural cycles found in nature. Intense manipulation of the landscape is the first problem in the agricultural equation. Tilling topsoil increases the rate of erosion, which increases turbidity of the water. Normally, an increase is viewed as a positive effect, a net gain. However, turbidity is frowned upon, as it is a lack of water clarity. Now, an important point to make is the lack of farming in the area we paddled through. The upper Susquehanna consists of residential communities and strip malls, not agriculture. But the upper part of river did not always appear this pristine. Susquehanna Outfitters owner, Steve, informed us about his childhood experience on the river – which was nonexistent.

Steve shared with us some dark history of the beautiful waterway. Coal mining was an intense business decades ago, and coal dust saturated the river. Soot stained the water black; there was no life in the water. Yet another example of how our culture destroys the beauty of nature. Coal mining was certainly beneficial to society, however, annihilated biodiversity in the river. Steve informed us that many of the islands found on the river are built upon coal dust deposits. This, therefore, could potentially lend itself to contaminating the river water, as the pH level of the water would be negatively influenced by the acid leeching from this widely used energy source. Yet Steve taught us a valuable lesson – inspect the invertebrates of the water to determine its health.

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After dividing into groups, we conquered Steve’s simple assignment:  inspect the underside of as many stones as possible to fill up the immaculate dividing containers bestowed upon us. In simpler terms, put a different organism in each section of the ice cube tray. I couldn’t believe how simple this experiment was, and how crucial it is in order to determine the health of the waterway. We discovered a plethora of species, including crayfish, mayflies, and assorted worms. The importance of the exercise was not simply find the organism, jump for joy that there is sign of life, and move on. Steve broke it down a step further, organizing them by how toxic of an environment they can survive in. The mayfly was the most important, as these critters cannot survive in highly contaminated waters. But the question is, are there mayflies throughout the river, or just at the top?

Had we been able to continue to the lower Susquehanna, I’m positive we would have discovered more turbidity due to agriculture. We came across many individuals throughout Journey Two that claimed the Bay is filthy due to the Susquehanna. There must be some reason behind all of the fuss over this river. But if this is not the case, then we must go back to a smaller source. We must discover the health of the brooks and streams that feed the Susquehanna. Everybody is willing to point fingers at the larger issue in order to keep them from changing their ways.

Agriculture may not back up immediately to the Susquehanna, but to smaller tributaries that feed the mighty river. This would require tighter restrictions and regulations to clean up the issue. While on the Chester River there are buffer zone requirements, these are not always abided by. The same may be true to areas feeding to the Susquehanna. If there is no land and vegetation to deter run off from entering the stream, then obviously contaminated water will find its way to the bay. In order to solve this problem, it must become a community wide effort, and everyone must stop pointing fingers. Nobody wants to point to themselves in the mirror, telling themselves to clean up their dirty farming practices. But this is what must occur in order to see any positive result in the bay.

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Only so much can be accomplished once contaminated waters reach the bay. But if we begin at the source, minimizing the chemicals and sediment seeping into the freshwater system, then the Bay may have some hope. A cleaner Bay may be seen in the distant future. The transformation would not occur over night, but I challenge farmers along this mighty, beautiful waterway to clean up their practice. If you love the Bay, and you want clean water, then you need to be willing to take the first step. Start cleaning up your act today to ensure clean water for the future.

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