Lessons From the Susquehanna

By Tom Neale, 9/29/2011

Chesapeake Bay and Tributaries NASA
Satellite September 13, 2011.
Did you see the satellite shots of the huge plume of stuff entering the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River after Irene, and especially after Lee? It’s amazing, depressing, awesome, scary… and I could throw in a million other unpleasant adjectives. The Susquehanna runs all the way into upper New York. It drains 27,500 square miles and that’s a lot of drainage to dump into the Chesapeake Bay or any other bay. Some of that area has very little civilization, but much of it is full of civilization and all its trappings. Trappings include a huge number of sewage treatment plants, storage for petroleum products and chemicals, buildings, vehicles, dumpsters, bridges and whatever else you may find around you wherever you live. From all areas there is nutrient. Nutrient ranges the gamut, from animal droppings to leaves and trees to fertilizer and just plain dirt. You could tell what was happening in the satellite views by the way the dirty brown color of the river was spreading out into the bay.

The floods caused by those storms ruined the property and lives of millions of people, killing quite a few. And that’s probably the worst of the story. But the flood waters will also probably cause huge damage to the bay for years to come. On an immediate small perspective, boats are canceling or postponing trips in the bay because of fear of hitting debris. For a slow moving sailboat with protected single screw, the implications may not be quite so great, but for fast moving powerboats with screws hanging out and churning, hitting a chunk of debris can take out the running gear and/or sink the boat. Also, on an immediate perspective, sediment is settling on underwater grasses, shellfish beds and other “normal” underwater features that are important for the health of the bay.

The implications worsen when you remember that, although the Susquehanna is the primary watershed into the bay, there are many more rivers, creeks and streams. It is said that the Native Americans who earlier lived around its shores referred to the bay as the Mother of Rivers. Different tributaries had different degrees of flooding and different types of shorelines, but each of these also flooded, sending untold amounts of stuff into the bay. This stuff, like that from the Susquehanna, ranged from the not so bad to the worst in terms of bay health.

Upper Chesapeake Bay NASA Satellite
September 13, 2011.
A very significant part of the storms’ contributions to the bay was, simply put, raw sewage. It came by the millions of gallons from sewage treatment plants along the tributaries and in the cities. If they weren’t overwhelmed by flood waters from tributaries, they were overwhelmed by rain water draining into them. I read one article speaking of millions of gallons of raw sewage being dumped into the Patapsco River (Baltimore, Maryland area). Interestingly, some environmental officials, while certainly not saying that it was a good thing, said it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

An article at http://catonsville.patch.com/articles/impact-of-baltimore-county-sewage-spills-on-chesapeake-limited-8279b25f contained the following, as well as other material: “It’s a big number, for sure,” said Ronald D. Neufeld, an environmental engineer at University of Pittsburgh. Spills on the scale of those in Baltimore County recently “are not routine events,” he said. Fortunately, Neufeld said, the sewage was diluted by large volumes of rainwater and flowed into large bodies of water. Jenn Aiosa, Maryland senior scientist at Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that over the long term, the impact of the sewage flows on the bay is less significant than the contamination from runoff, streams and groundwater that occurs across the Chesapeake watershed on a daily basis. “Any time one hears about millions of spilled sewage, it is not a good thing. But it creates a problem of perception versus reality,” Aiosa said. “We need people to be concerned about their water on a routine basis.”… However, the impact of the sewage spills is not as dramatic as it seems, she said. “Sewage is readily diluted,” Aiosa said.”

Considering all this, I have to wonder how some environmental extremists are quite alright with fining a boater $10,000, or so, and perhaps even convicting him of a class 1 misdemeanor, for one flush of highly treated sewage (treated to the point that it’s no longer “sewage”) from a USCG approved Marine Sanitation Device. Also, I can’t help but wonder at the conclusions of anyone who says that millions and millions of gallons of raw sewage into the bay really isn’t all that terribly bad and simply needs to be put into perspective. I think that it’s very bad. And the sewage is just a small part of it when you consider stored chemicals, chemicals on the streets and other toxins of all sorts from a huge number of sources. Raging floods don’t pick and choose. They take what’s there.

But maybe those folks do have a point of sorts. Irene and Lee weren’t the first massive flood inducing storms we’ve had. This type of phenomenon has been happening for millions of years. Of course, in recent years we’ve increasingly put more bad stuff in the way of the waters, not necessarily because we as a people don’t care, as some would have you to believe, but just because our numbers keep increasing and our civilization keeps advancing. I, for one, wouldn’t like to go back and live in the age of the dinosaurs so that I can be more “eco-friendly.”

Tom’s Tips Flood Debris

1. Debris often congregates in debris fields. These can usually be seen from planes and even boats before they reach the fields. Sometimes they can be tracked.

2. Never depend entirely on tracking information as to debris fields. It is the nature of most bodies of water to have eddies and circular flows as well as flows that change direction because of tides, winds, currents from tributaries and bottom characteristics.

Click Here for More Tips

Evidence does suggest that while the bay will eventually muddle through, it will probably have a tougher time because there’s a lot more to muddle through. And this last set of storms, particularly Lee, was worse than many others before. Agnes in 1972 is considered to be the worst in terms of flooding and runoff in recorded history, Lee perhaps the third worst. But with every flood, material from shore that is likely to be alien to the waters, is cast into the mix. It brings home the point that finger pointing, such an easy tool of extremists, is seldom realistic. Millions of us, from all walks of life, with all sorts of backgrounds, occupations, recreational interests and lifestyles contribute to pollution—often without thinking about it or even imagining it.

So when I see fingers wagging at me, because I’m a boater, with often absurd, unrealistic demands made, which haven’t been thought through, I don’t like it. Every one of us should do all that we can to keep not only our waters, but our planet healthy. It’s a no brainer. It’s where we live. But realistic perspective never hurts. Listening to each other never hurts. It even helps to recognize the truth of that heretical concept that we can’t live here without making adverse impacts. When we recognize that, we’re better equipped to minimize those impacts. Would extremists order everyone who lives up the Susquehanna to leave? I don’t think so. I hope not. It makes about as much sense as some of the other extremist ideas. Not only is this unrealistic, it would be self defeating. We’re all here. We all want to continue being here. We all need to work together to do everything we can, rather than to waste time and money and the planet by pointing a finger at the other guy.

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