||Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton
As Goes the Endangered Susquehanna, So Goes Our Chesapeake Bay
The branches of a tree
Spread no wider than its roots …
—Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology
Regrettably, the above words don’t hold true for waterways; their impact can spread far beyond their banks, as we were reminded the past week, when the mighty Susquehanna was listed by American Rivers as the most endangered river in our nation.
The woes of the Susky flow southward into our Chesapeake. We need not be reminded that this river, whose origin is hundreds of miles away in upstate New York, contributes close to half of the fresh water that enters our Bay. That fresh water is sorely needed by our troubled estuary; but certainly not needed are the nutrients and other pollutants it brings with it.
Last week as Maryland’s trophy rockfish season opened on the Chesapeake, the impact of the Susquehanna was visible indeed. North of the Bay Bridge, the Bay was heavily stained, so much so that fishing success was negligible. It wasn’t much better south of the bridge, and upper Bay boats had to go as far south as Chesapeake Beach before water visibility improved sufficiently for fair fishing at best.
To find waters barely the way one might hope at rockfish time, the trip for many was even farther to the south to waters near Breezy Point.
More Than Meets the Eye
As I cruised southward from Annapolis on the hunt for stripers, I thought not of just the waters thick enough to make it near impossible for a fish to see bait just a few feet away. I thought also of what those waters around me carried other than the silt, sediment and muck that obscured visibility below the surface.
With the naked eye, one doesn’t see nutrients, phosphorus, mercury, metals and the other collection of pollutants stirred up and flushed when waters are riled by heavy rains. No, they are invisible; only later do we learn of their consequences from those who monitor the health of the troubled Chesapeake with sophisticated equipment and who understand the impact of pollutants on the aquatic animals and vegetation of the estuary.
Will Baker, Chesapeake Bay Foundation president, tells us that 40 percent of the Bay’s nitrogen comes from the Susquehanna. Add to that millions of pounds of pollution, sediment, also human and animal waste every year. What I witnessed from the deck of that boat headed to waters off Chesapeake Beach for rockfish was the remnants of Mother Nature’s flushing of the Susky.
Those whose duties are to safeguard our Bay and its tributaries, whether on a federal, state or regional basis, can talk all they want about portions of the river beginning to meet minimum water quality standards, but methinks that’s of little consolation; pure hogwash if it is meant to lessen our concerns about the Susquehanna’s impact on the Bay.
When billions of gallons of water are flushed from the Susky through the opened floodgates of Conowingo Dam, the flow is not just from the areas where improvements are said to be observed; no, it is from the entire river system: the good, the bad and the ugly. The spread is far wider than the river itself.
Pity the Poor Susquehanna
Much as we cherish the Bay, let us not forget the mighty Susquehanna in all of this. It is a productive, scenic and — to the Bay — a vital waterway. Some might fantasize of an enormous dam somewhere around the Maryland line to hold back the river and all its contaminants as if, presto!, our problems were solved.
But from where would the vital freshwaters come that maintain the balance of the Bay’s fragile ecosystem? The Susquehanna, despite its disruptive influence on the Chesapeake, doubles as its savior. Bad as the waters might be, they are necessary. Seeing that we can’t do without them, we’d better concentrate on cleaning them up.
We can do all that is suggested in the Chesapeake proper to clean things up. But what would we accomplish if bad waters continue to flush contaminants into it from not only the Susquehanna but also the Potomac, Patuxent, Choptank, Pocomoke, Nanticoke, Patapsco, Chester, Magothy, Severn, South, West? The list goes on to include all tributaries whose watersheds are tainted by too many people and animals (and their waste), industry large and small and other impacts brought about by development.
Too bad the Susquehanna takes the rap in the latest round of finger pointing. It is the biggest of the villains (with the Potomac a close runner-up), but it is not the only culprit. It is a river with so much potential, while also being a river with so much influence, good and bad, on the Bay.
Over the years, I have gained the utmost appreciation of the Susquehanna. I have probably spent more time on its swift waters than on all waters of the Chesapeake other than the Bay itself. There are times when on it I think I see its soul, and I fully realize it is worth cleaning up as much for itself as for the welfare our Bay.
I was around when in springtime, shad and herring runs seemed to fill the river whose waters floated an armada of boats, as its banks were lined elbow to elbow with other Izaak Waltons casting shad darts and flies. I witnessed the crash of shad and herring populations, and I am just now witnessing their rebound.
I wonder if in my lifetime, I will once again see dipnetters with their long poles that hold big square nets standing alongside fishermen as they dip for herring at and below the mouth of Deer Creek at Susquehanna State Park. I have also seen the rise, the fall and the resurgence of rockfish populations in the river. I fully realize their impact on that fishery, not just in our Bay, but all along the coast once they leave us for the ocean.
I have witnessed the Susquehanna at its best and also at its worst. More than 30 years ago, I slowed my auto to a crawl while crossing the I-95 bridge to look upriver to see flumes of water and spray shoot skyward as Conowingo Dam miraculously held against the onslaught of Tropical Storm Agnes. That catastrophe muddied the Bay for many weeks — and gave the guardians of the Chesapeake a scapegoat on which all Bay maladies were erroneously blamed for a few decades.
Play the Pieces We Have
There is so much to this big puzzle of Bay deterioration, and at times one fears some of the pieces are missing. But whether or not they are, we can no longer wait until they are found, wasting our time finger pointing and waiting for funding.
We must play with the pieces we have, play them forcefully while keeping up the pressure on those who manage our waters on all levels of government. Somewhere, methinks, they have the missing pieces to the puzzle. Enough said.