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Troubled Water?: Sportsmen and the DEP agree something is wrong with the Susquehanna River, but disagree on what to do about it.

Posted 2/5/13

Highspire Boating Association President Myles Blazi used to love bass fishing in the Susquehanna River, and he wasn’t alone. “The first day of bass season looked like the first day of trout season,” he said. “We had the best bass fishing in …

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Troubled Water?: Sportsmen and the DEP agree something is wrong with the Susquehanna River, but disagree on what to do about it.


boaters2 6 13Press And Journal Photo by Daniel Walmer Highspire Boating Association members, from left to right, George Clark, Myles Blazi, Al Krebs, Jake Wilsbach, and Bob Williamson enjoy a brisk winter day on the banks of the Susquehanna River. The deposits of white shells behind them have begun building up along their stretch of the Susquehanna in recent years – one of several signs of change in the river, some of which are decreasing the river’s bass population.“We noticed the problem first a little over 10 years ago,” he said.  “We started to notice a drastic decrease in some of the fish species.”

Recalled association member Jake Wilsbach, “I used to go out here and catch 75 [bass] in one afternoon. Now you’d be lucky to catch five.”

Boaters notified the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) of the signs of pollution – diseased fish, invasive species – but no action was taken, Blazi said.  But recently the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has gotten on board, asking DEP to declare a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna from Sunbury to the Maryland border an impaired river. That’s only resulted in a war of words between the two agencies, however.

Meanwhile, the river traffic has gone away, and the association is losing members.

“Who wants to go out on the river anymore when it’s polluted?” Blazi asked.

The members who remain are left reminiscing about the good old days, when they fished from on top of a rock looking out over the river.  

“You could drop a worm down the side and catch all the rock bass you wanted,” said association member Bob Williamson.  “Now, you can’t catch any.”

Blazi wants people to join with the association in a grassroots movement to help restore the river to its former glory.

“We’re not just asking sportsmen to get involved, we’re hoping to get anyone involved,” he said. “We just want to get the ball rolling.”

While the association can’t fix the river by itself, it plans to use membership dues to provide resources to help put pressure on DEP to declare the Susquehanna an impaired river and help discover the cause of the problem, he said.

“Once we know what the problem is, hopefully we can correct it,” he said.

Given enough members, he would also like to organize volunteer river clean-up dates.

DEP press secretary Kevin Sunday said the department is aware of the river’s problems.  However, there is not enough scientific evidence to declare it an impaired river, and doing so would “not bring us any closer” to fixing its problems, especially since the reasons for the pollution are unknown, Sunday said.

“We really need to take a comprehensive approach and look at this,” he said. “We’re going to keep looking at it and see what is distressing the bass . . . There’s a lot of efforts being done right now.”

Michael Helfrich, head of the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper organization, isn’t buying it.  The federal Clean Water Act requires DEP to maintain the river or put it on its impaired list, regardless of the cause, Helfrich said.

“To me, that’s just a campaign of misinformation [from DEP],” he said. “The key to getting put on the list is not that you know what the problem is . . . it’s that there is a problem.”

Placing the river on the list starts a timeline to require the state to clean it up, according to Eric Levis, a press secretary for the Fish and Boat Commission.  

Helfrich wants to pressure the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Clean Water Act, to have the impaired river list changed to include the Susquehanna – and said there is only a limited amount of time for citizens to provide comments before the list is set. He encourages concerned citizens to write to Bill Richardson of EPA Region 3 and representatives in Congress, and to remember their actions at the ballot box.

“More important than writing is remembering . . . If they’re not on the side of the fishermen, then that’s something we’re going to have to remember when everyone comes up for election,” he said.  

In a recent statement, Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway also encouraged concerned citizens to contact their senators and local representatives to pressure the EPA.

The commission has also been entangled in a well-publicized dispute with DEP over DEP’s failure to give the Susquehanna the impaired river distinction.

“We’re clearly in public disagreement with them,” Levis said. “We are very confident that [the data] shows that the river is clearly impaired.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was also a signatory on a petition to DEP to place the Susquehanna on the impaired rivers list, but Pennsylvania office Executive Director Harry Campbell encouraged people to first take personal steps to help the river environment, like limiting the amount of times you fertilize your lawn and avoiding personal care and pharmaceutical products suspected of being a cause of the diseases in fish.

Then, “if this is something that people are concerned about, and they feel needs to be addressed, than I encourage everyone . . . to engage in the public conversation,” he said.  “Learn, act and engage.”

And there’s one thing everyone interested in preserving the river seems to agree upon: The river’s future matters to more than just fishermen.

“It is the lifeblood . . . to our economic activity and our quality of life,” Campbell said.  “It is directly correlated to the health and impact of ourselves.”

Helfrich put the importance of the river a different way.

“That’s our Ocean City,” he said. “That’s our Disney World.  That’s just as important to us as any of those other attractions.”