We are the journalists behind "Killing the Chesapeake," a special report from the USA TODAY Network on how pollution from the Susquehanna River is poisoning and endangering the bay. AMA!
The Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay's largest tributary, funnels pollution downstream by the ton, endangering wildlife and degrading habitats people rely on for recreation and subsistence. The clock is ticking to take action before things become irreversible, and Pennsylvania is $324 million behind in its "Clean Water Blueprint" commitment to clean up the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Our reporting examines all this and more. Proof:
UPDATE:That's a wrap for us. Thank you all for the thoughtful questions and comments. Please check out our "Killing the Chesapeake" special report if you haven't already and reach out if you have any other questions.
One of the goals of the Conowingo piece was to help people understand the scope -- if you consider wacky comparisons about train cars to be "work," that is. If you prefer another distance, 4,000 miles is also about from NYC to Berlin. We should probably consult with the people who write children's books like "How much is a million?" to try to explain this better. As far as apathy, I don't really think so -- while conversations of a global nature (like about climate change) can definitely lead to paralysis over the immensity of solutions, this problem is regional. Even though it also requires a great deal of coordination and cooperation to solve, at least it's easier to wrap our heads around. But I guess it depends on the person! -- JR
In the Lancaster County farm story where you identified that Amish farming practices have left Sweeney's farm with lots of polluted waters, I'm curious, what is the worst-case scenario of environmental effects that can occur from this kind of pollution? I assume that there are lots of things connected in the ecosystem one might not necessarily think about?
Yes, there are a lot of things that connect to create the problem, just as there are a lot of things that connect to solve it. The worst case scenario is unfettered run-off that contains excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Fortunately, mitigation has worked, when it's given a chance to work. It's just a matter of changing practices and creating buffers that protect the watershed. And yes, one thing that was striking in all of our reporting was how everything is connected in the ecosystem, that one mitigation effort may create other issues. For example, the removal of mill dams, without restoration of streams and wetlands, is believed to be a good thing. But without other efforts it can result in increased erosion and runoff that contribute to issues downstream. Thanks for the great question. - MA
So, I hear you and see the reporting on the importance of mitigation before runoff from farms gets into the streams, but what sorts of things can be done once this pollution ends up in the sediments of rivers and streams? Are there effective clean up efforts that farmers or everyday people would be able to take on or is it a zero sum game at that point? Thanks for answering my questions!
Once the pollution gets into the streams, it's much more problematic, as we're seeing with the sediment issues and its concentration of phosphorus at the Conowingo Dam. The most effective way to deal with it is to prevent it from getting into the watershed in the first place. And there are things farmers can do, changing farming practices, keeping livestock away from streams, planting buffers along streams, things like that. There are also a number of watershed groups, local volunteers, who have taken on the task of stream restoration. Mostly that means planting trees and native plants to serve as buffers to reduce runoff into streams. Thanks for the questions. - MA
Here are some helpful things regular folks and government officials can do:
I lost a kayak in the brandywine river and am wondering if you’ve seen it? #bringbacktheyak
I'm confused, should I keep an eye out for a boat or a yak --jr
Even though the problems with pollution do appear to actually be intensified by the dam — unlike what Exelon claims — the dam HAS acted for years as a credit to the bay, holding back pollution. Would the bay have been better or worse off if the dam had just never been built?
Hey, thanks for your question u/temporary_jacket. If the dam was never built, not only would we not have the confounding issues we have now specifically about what's up inside the reservoir (and our fish passage problems) but I personally believe that action would have been taken on pollution sooner if the stuff hadn't been trapped and went into the bay for people to see. The fact that much of the visible pollution (sediment, with the phosphorus attached) was blocked up behind the wall hid the problem from view. Yes, it would have been devastating to the upper bay, but maybe people would have been inspired to act sooner had that been the case. -- JR
Does the issue not simply move up further to the Holtwood Dam then?
That's astute -- I didn't get into the other dams in the story at all because I felt it really overcomplicated things. But yes, there would be a period between dam construction and dynamic equilibrium when the exact same thing happened. I'd have to go way back in my notes to get a precise date of Holtwood reaching d/e. So if Conowingo were never built, between that date and now we would have seen more clearly the downstream nature of the pollution pathway. Not saying I'm 100% positive that anything would have actually come of it! But, maybe. --JR
Will any of this make it way to the banks of southern Maryland like Charles and St. Mary's counties ?
Thanks for your question! Given Charles' inset positon on the Potomac, I'd say no -- but the Potomac has its own issues! Since the tip of St. Mary's is right out there in the bay, they are more likely to be affected (during big storms, anyway). Primarily, though, this is an upper-to-middle-bay issue. --JR
Here's another question and answer from the "other" AMA (LOL):
Is the suit filed by DE/MD/VA against the EPA the same as the suit filed on Sept. 10 by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation? Either way, do you think any suit has a chance of success for the plaintiffs? It would seem there has definitely been sort of "relaxed" enforcement from EPA, but how does this all look from a legal perspective? If you have a link to the DE/MD/VA v. EPA complaint that would be great! I can't seem to find it online...
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They are separate suits. The suits could become moot if the Biden EPA takes a stronger stand to require PA and NY to clean up their acts. It will be interesting to see if he will hold the feet of a state that helped elect him to the fire. Looking for a link to the states' suits. This gives some background: https://www.ydr.com/in-depth/news/2021/02/02/why-pennsylvania-failing-chesapeake-bay-and-how-affects-you/3777331001/. Also, this: https://www.delmarvanow.com/in-depth/news/2021/02/02/conowingo-dams-toxic-muck-vexing-problem-chesapeake-bay-susquehanna-river/3258294001/
I almost wonder if DE/MD/VA would prefer the case not be rendered moot so as to establish a more solid precedent regarding CWA enforcement. That said, any solution that "fixes" the enforcement problem quickly would probably be best from the perspective of the Bay. I'll dig around some more and see if I can't find the complaint - I would love to know the specific legal theories they are going after here. I found the CBF complaint but not the DE/MD/VA one. Thanks!
would prefer the case not be rendered moot so as to establish a more solid precedent regarding CWA enforcement
How would you rank the different types of pollution by importance/detriment/impact in the Chesapeake? Are microplastics significant, or not compared to the rest of the pollution types?
It's a tricky comparison, since different pollutants don't necessarily impact the same things. Like, phosphorus and nitrogen are very problematic for the ways they degrade the bay's habitats, and microplastics leach chemicals, stress oysters and mess with water treatment plants. We could compare the problems in terms of dollars to solve, or people affected... but each would rank differently depending on what we use as the yardstick. I know that's kind of a dodge, but it would take a lot of work to answer this fully! --JR
I'm not sure whether there's a ranking, per se. Microplastics, I could see, would be a problem. But the pollutants that attract most attention are excessive nitrogen and phosphorus, which have detrimental effects on Chesapeake water quality and fisheries. Microplastics may be significant, but the amount of significance, I'm not sure. maybe JR knows more about it. - MA
Is there anything I can do as a PA citizen to help the cause?? I know that Lancaster Conservancy has done a lot of good work in regards to ecological restoration and water quality monitoring, and they have people whose jobs are to help inspect and improve farms. But I also know that they too have trouble getting the Amish to comply (and I'm sure it's not JUST the Amish, given that LancCo has a large amount of protected farmland).
I've always heard people complaining about the Susquehanna around here, but I'm from Pittsburgh so it seemed silly to me until I learned about all the trouble it's causing for the Chesapeake Bay. Thank you for everything you're doing to help save the bay!!!
Hi, I posted these for another question but valid here too:
8 simple things YOU can do to restore the Susquehanna River and save the Chesapeake Bay (my fav is "Have the worst lawn in the neighborhood.")
5 things government leaders can do to save the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay (probably the most important is "$pend more on watershed projects")
As far as grassroots efforts, you could join a local watershed association. These volunteer groups do a lot of work to protect streams. For instance, the one in York County has been working on planting hundreds of trees and native plants to create buffers to reduce run off into streams. Another thing citizens can do is vote and stay in contact with you state representatives so they know that this is an important issue to you. I interviewed state Sen. Gene Yaw, a Williamsport Republican who served as chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission in 2020, and he said the most difficult thing was convincing fellow legislators of the importance of cleaning up the Susquehanna watershed and protecting the bay. It is, he said, "a hard sell" in the best of times. With COVID and budget pressures, it's an even harder sell. But the benefits, as studies have shown, are great. From cleaner water and a healthier environment to economic benefits that are sometimes overlooked. Thanks for the question and I hope I gave you some answers. - MA
We had some technical difficulties and had to start a new AMA. Here's a question and answer from the old one:
From plaid-lemming: Where on the river is most of the pollution coming from? I live along the river north of the Catskills.
I'll answer here, though: It depends on what kind of pollution you're talking about. Much of the nutrient runoff comes from southern PA - particularly Lancaster County (Amish country): https://www.ydr.com/in-depth/news/2021/02/02/old-mill-dams-amish-farming-practices-pollution-susquehanna-chesapeake/5908103002/ . Acid mine discharge is a big problem along the northern stretches of the river: https://www.ydr.com/in-depth/news/2021/02/03/dead-creek-red-acid-mine-discharge-poisoning-susquehanna-river/5692612002/ . Antiquate combined sewage systems dot the river top to bottom.
Hi I live very close to the Severn river and want to thank you all for this great work.
Is the water near Annapolis affected by this pollution? Is it safe to swim in the rivers near Annapolis or should I avoid going into them?
Thanks for your comment! Here's a link to recent monitoring data from rivers in Anne Arundel county. Since swimming safety depends on the day (weather plays a big role) it's worth checking before you go. --JR https://aahealth.org/recreational-water-quality-report/
I think my question ended up on the deleted thread, so here it is again! Is the suit filed by DE/MD/VA against the EPA the same as the suit filed on Sept. 10 by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation? Either way, do you think any suit has a chance of success for the plaintiffs? It would seem there has definitely been sort of "relaxed" enforcement from EPA, but how does this all look from a legal perspective? If you have a link to the DE/MD/VA v. EPA complaint that would be great! I can't seem to find it myself...
The suits are separate, but I guess you could call them "coordinated" or "in concert." CBF’s only partners in the suit are Anne Arundel County MD, the Maryland Watermen’s Association, and Robert Whitescarver and Jeanne Hoffman, who operate a livestock farm in Virginia. Meanwhile, the Attorneys General in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and DC filed separately. I think chances for success are slim, but that's very much an armchair opinion based mostly on pessimism. Not sure I can offer much in terms of a legal perspective, but I do have the complaint and can let you decide for yourself! I need to upload it somewhere but I'll put a link in a comment below. --JR
u/Jak947 here's the complaint! https://www.scribd.com/document/493477432/CBF-Complaint-Filed-9-10-20-EPA-Lawsuit
Hi Jak, see above. I've been monitoring the deleted thread.
Your story concerns non-toxic pollution (eutrophication, sediment) and some pharmaceuticals. Is there an issue with pesticides owing to all that farmland?
There is an issue! Pesticides can move up the food web when larger fish and birds eat smaller contaminated organisms. Humans can also be affected if they catch contaminated fish or drink contaminated water. And they put stress on the ecosystem. Here's an explainer about it -- https://www.chesapeakebay.net/news/blog/pesticide_runoff_can_pose_risk_to_humans_wildlife_in_chesapeake_bay_region
Just curious- did you guys look into how the changing Chesapeake would impact Tangier Island?
We didn't look at Tangier specifically in this project, though a lot has been written in the past on it. There was this piece from 2019: https://www.delmarvanow.com/story/news/2019/11/11/rising-waters-swallow-chesapeake-bays-magical-island-classroom/4066114002/, as well as this one from 2017 https://www.delmarvanow.com/story/life/2017/06/19/many-want-save-tangier-but-how/39895401/. You might also like this Tom Horton column about it https://www.delmarvanow.com/story/opinion/columnists/2017/11/18/eastern-shore-tangier-rising-seas/874856001/. --JR
How does someone make a career out of fixing environmental problems like the Susquehanna River?
I think there are lots of ways to go about this. From a "big picture" standpoint, there's always nonprofits or lawmaking, or becoming an environmental attorney. Environmental researchers and educators help as well. Or you could get really hands-on and be someone who audits polluting entities or serves up violations. Or maybe even a sewer technician, because leaking sewage into the river from Harrisburg is a real problem! This is not an exhaustive list but as you can see, there are many options. --JR
Has there been any consideration given to using zero valent iron (ZVI) to mitigate phosphorus and other chemical runoff?
Hmm, haven't heard about any such proposals, but some quick googling suggests it's an interesting topic. Maybe grist for a follow-up story. - SF
Never heard it mentioned. I'll have to look into it! --JR
I haven't read or heard much about this fight so forgive me if this has been covered already.
Is there any chance that the 'rights of nature' idea can help?
Invisible Hand is a recent documentary that covered the subject, and their website has collected successful examples from around the world.
Also, thank you for the work you do.
That's an interesting concept. Here in Pennsylvania, the state Constitution guarantees residents the right to clean water and air, a constitution amendment that, I believe, has been adopted by 16 other states. From a purely political standpoint, perhaps that's a way of getting to protecting the rights of nature. - MA
There was one part of this story that really struck me: " The amount of sediment Conowingo Reservoir holds at dynamic equilibrium could fill about 265,000 rail cars, the USGS estimates. Lined up, those cars would make a train 4,000 miles long (about the distance as the crow flies from the dam to Anchorage, Alaska)." What sort of work does it take when talking about the scale of this problem to get folks to fully understand the sheer amount of pollution you're talking about? Do you think this challenge of communication can lead to apathy about the problem? I see huge numbers like this and often can't fathom them, but thought the analogy of traveling to Anchorage was really enlightening.
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