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DEP river report worries outdoor enthusiasts, activists

David Weissman
505-5431/@DispatchDavid
  • The state DEP listed a 4-mile stretch that includes parts in Harrisburg as impaired for recreation.
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation and PA Fish & Boat Commission pushing for inclusion of smallmouth bass.

The state Department of Environmental Protection lists 4 miles of the Susquehanna River as impaired for recreation in a new draft report, but environmental groups argue the proposal doesn't go far enough.

Paul O'Connor, of Harrisburg backs his boat off the dock, as he prepares to go fishing on the Susquehanna River Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, in Wrightsville. Amanda J. Cain photo

The draft integrated water quality monitoring and assessment report, which is conducted every two years, designates the 4-mile stretch from the mouth of the Conodoguinet Creek to the mouth of the Yellow Breeches Creek as impaired, according to a DEP news release.

The release states that those portions of the river contained high densities of coliform bacteria, which indicate the potential of other pathogens that might make people sick if they come in contact with — or ingest — the water.

Kristina Gates, left, and Brian Bruce, both of Camp Hill, wait on their friends, as they prepare to go fishing on the Susquehanna River Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, in Wrightsville. Amanda J. Cain photo

Susquehanna Outfitters, which offers kayak and canoe rentals, sits near the middle of that stretch at the northern edge of City Island in Harrisburg.

Steve Oliphant, the shop's owner, said he agrees the river needs attention, but the designation may give the area a "black eye" in terms of public perception.

He said he believes the bacteria is a result of rain washing litter and chemicals into the river.

"I don't know what the implications are, but I would hope it means the Department of Environmental Protection will protect the environment," Oliphant said. "I don't want to fight it. I want clean water."

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the designation is meant to increase public awareness, but there is immediate risk to human health. The department is extending is monitoring to tributaries to try to determine the source of the bacteria.

Despite a relatively dry summer, Oliphant said business has been booming, and the area of the river surrounding his business is generally full of wildlife and warm, clear water.

"The overwhelming beauty here speaks for itself," he said.

Long Level Marina employee Warren Mohler, sweeps up spider webs during his shift Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, in Wrightsville. Amanda J. Cain photo

Smallmouth bass: The biannual report examines the state's water quality for water supply, aquatic life, recreation and fish consumption.

All 347 miles of the Susquehanna River are listed as impaired for fish consumption, but that listing is not related to the river's dwindling struggling smallmouth bass population, according to the release.

Seeking Clarity: Susquehanna River pollution endangers smallmouth bass

In response to the designation, the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Pennsylvania, issued a statement expressing disappointment in failing to address the threat to smallmouth bass.

"Given the well-documented death and disease of smallmouth bass in the Lower Susquehanna River for more than a decade, it is disappointing that the DEP has chosen not to recommend impairment for the threat to aquatic life," Harry Campbell said in the statement.

State Fish and Boat Commission data indicates that the river's smallmouth bass population dropped significantly between 1992 and 2012. Diseased and dying bass were found in the river in 2005 and researchers have long found intersex bass on the river, according to previous reports.

The DEP's release notes a report released in late 2015 that identified endocrine disrupters and herbicides as likely causes for the population decrease, but added that these connections did not contribute to its impairment listing.

John Arway, executive director of the commission, said the department's decision to continue delaying any potential remedy for the situation is "frustrating."

"I just can't understand what they need to make this decision," he said.

Shader said the department is expanding its research into the cause of the population decrease, and they've found higher concentrations of endocrine disrupters coming from the Juniata River, but they are still uncertain.

Arway added that catch-and-release laws coupled with higher flows and cooler temperatures the past couple of years have led to increases in the smallmouth bass populations, but this summer's earlier-than-usual high temperatures could damage that growth.

The DEP's report will be issued to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, but interested parties have 45 days from July 30 to submit comments.

Arway said the commission plans to make its case to the EPA. Otherwise, any actions to improve the bass issue will be deferred until 2018, he said.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.