An ‘Impaired’ Susquehanna can become a Healthier River


Smallmouth bass | Duane Raver, USFWS

Smallmouth bass | Duane Raver, USFWS

American Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have submitted a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region III (EPA) regional administrator, Shawn Garvin requesting amendment to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) list of impaired waterways. Notably lacking from the list DEP recently submitted to EPA is the Lower Susquehanna River.

The omission is notable because the evidence of declining health for smallmouth bass is supported by data ranging from declining fish catch reports to records of pH levels that are not supportive for healthy fish. 

Armed with data and together with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and other partners we submitted a request to DEP to list the Lower Susquehanna as impaired in order to begin a plan to clean-up the river and restore the fish population. DEP denied our request and also shied away from public sentiment when the draft list was released. DEP persisted by submitting a final list of impaired Pennsylvania waterways to EPA without including the Lower Susquehanna despite acknowledging that the health problem with young of year smallmouth bass merited initiating a study.

Why is it still important that we secure the Lower Susquehanna a spot on Pennsylvania’s list of impaired waterways even though DEP is initiating a study? Because, under the Clean Water Act, a river segment declared impaired or unable to stay healthy enough to support a traditional activity deserves to be cleaned up. Placing the river on the list starts the planning process to clean up the river and restore its function.

Diseased smallmouth bass and poor pH levels mean the Susquehanna can no longer support healthy fish and the river’s tradition as a great place to fish. Placing the river on the impaired waterways list starts a process that can take 13 years in Pennsylvania! Although additional study may be a part of that process, the Susquehanna fisherman that emailed me Saturday doesn’t need to wait any longer—with more than 40 years’ experience fishing the Susquehanna he “began to notice something seriously wrong with the quantity and quality of the bass population more than eight years ago.”

He asks, “What can I do to help get this river back in shape?” It’s the same question I’ve heard from other fisherman and boaters who have witnessed fish behaving erratically and bearing grotesque lesions. We hope EPA will require the impaired waterways list for Pennsylvania include the Lower Susquehanna so fisherman and boaters in Pennsylvania can engage in the clean-up process, as required by the Clean Water Act.