Testing The Water: How Safe Are NEPA’s Rivers And Lakes?
Tim Daley tromped out of the rushing Lackawanna River with his netful of organic gunk held high.
At first glance, the aquatic biologist appeared to have nothing more than mud, twigs and leaves.
Then things started wiggling.
Dozens of tiny macroinvertebrates — juvenile bugs — crawled around in the 500-micrometer D-frame net. Its tiny mesh lets water through, but catches just about everything else, including the caddisfly, mayfly and water penny beetle larvae that go a long way in telling Daley how healthy the water is.
The state Department of Environmental Protection biologist of 19 years employs the same standard tools and methods that scientists across the country use for sampling.
And on Friday, in a wide reach of the Lackawanna, downstream from the Albright Avenue bridge, he was encouraged by what he saw.
The Lackawanna, the largest tributary to the Susquehanna River, is considered a tough home for macroinvertebrates, according to a Citizens’ Voice review of an enormous data cache the state Department of Environmental Protection recently released.
The draft 2018 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report taps years of water sampling data from Pennsylvania’s 85,000 miles of streams and rivers and 228 public lakes that cover nearly 100,000 acres.
The data offers a starting point for more detailed study and programs to make lakes and streams cleaner for people and animals.
However, some who work in for-profit and nonprofit water protection say the federal system for setting pollutant loads and planning cleanup efforts has no teeth because there’s little money and too much red tape to act.
The federal Clean Water Act requires states to submit assessment data on their waterways every two years. For the first time, the DEP published its findings on an extensive online platform that includes interactive maps and tables.
Statewide, 21% of assessed streams were unhealthy for aquatic life, the category with the most data; 36% of assessed lakes were impaired for the same measure.
In the report, state biologists rate waterways as either “attaining” or “impaired” in four categories: aquatic life, potable water supply, fish consumption and recreation.
Pennsylvania has more streams and rivers per square mile than most other states. The state hasn’t assessed all of them, nor do all meet the criteria for assessment in all categories.
For example, the department seeks to assess only the streams that have a high potential to be fished for food, and statewide, that’s only about 13,000 miles of streams.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, the region that includes Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties, 494 miles of streams are deemed unhealthy for eating fish among the four categories.
Here are a few other examples of impairment:
• Pittston — The Susquehanna River is impaired for fish consumption. The reason: mercury levels in the fish. Otherwise, the water is fairly clean — that is, until it passes Pittston. There the Lackawanna River, hued orange from the iron-laden acid mine water pumping out of the Old Forge borehole, introduces other dissolved metals including aluminum and manganese.
• Plains Twp. — Laurel Run looks great as it runs along Wilkes-Barre Mountain, but the water quality starts to suffer when it reaches the Interstate 81/Route 309 interchange in Plains Twp. Silt from storm sewers, runoff and abandoned mine drainage worsen conditions for macroinvertebrates.
• Newport Twp. — Newport Creek struggles to support aquatic life because abandoned mine drainage tilts pH levels and adds dissolved metals.
• Wilkes-Barre — Runoff from urban development and storm sewers creates inhospitable conditions for aquatic life in Mill Creek. Abandoned mine drainage also affects the bugs and fish living there.
“There’s so many different causes of impairment,” said Robert Hughes, director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, or EPCAMR.
On Wednesday, staffs with his organization, the Luzerne Conservation District and volunteers planted 250 trees to strengthen the riparian buffer corridor along a fork of Harveys Creek in Lehman Twp.
Improving riparian buffers, the plant borders along waterways that trap sediment and pollution, is one of the best ways to protect streams, but resources are slim and hard-fought for those kinds of projects, Hughes said.
“To pay for trees, and to get volunteers to do all that work, that takes time and effort and money,” he said.
Don Baylor, an aquatic biologist from Monroe County, said the state needs to be more proactive in catching pollution before it reaches the water.
“If someone wants to put a discharge in a stream, there should be a study of the biota before so that we know for sure what the impact is,” he said. “Pennsylvania, I don’t think, has ever required that.”
Whether the DEP, which loses state funding year after year, is likely to fund more restoration projects and order developers building near waterways to do baseline testing remains to be seen.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2019-20 budget proposal, which lawmakers have not enacted yet, asks for a 13% reduction to the environmental protection budget.
The governor’s proposal asks the department’s programs, including those that protect watersheds, to rely on more federal funding and fees instead of the general fund.
Will you really get sick?
There’s often a disconnect between assessment labels and actual water use.
Anglers eat fish from impaired lakes and don’t get sick.
“There’s some bona fide reasons why people, particularly those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, children, etc., should not consume large quantities of (recreationally caught) fish,” said Nick Spinelli, executive director of the Lake Wallenpaupack Watershed Management District. “A lot of it is the larger game fish because of the bioaccumulation of heavy metals.”
In short, prize-sized walleye or striped bass live longer and have more time to absorb things that make people sick.
That doesn’t mean the water is otherwise unhealthy.
Lake Wallenpaupack again offers an example. It meets potable water supply standards.
These few examples reveal how “attaining” and “impaired” labels don’t perfectly line up with how people use a lake or stream — nobody gets drinking water from Lake Wallenpaupack, Spinelli said.
Instead, the federal standards give regulators and nonprofits a picture of waterway health and a starting line to address problems.
Impaired waters are supposed to have cleanup plans that start with a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, calculation. It’s a deeper analysis that tells regulators how to limit new pollution sources, and which pollutants need extra effort to clean up.
Nonprofits and state biologists can then start looking for pollution sources.
There are the obvious ones.
Malfunctioning sewer treatment plants could be spilling undertreated water into streams. The same is true for fertilizer runoff from crop-growing farms and animal waste from farms that raise animals.
Especially in Northeast Pennsylvania, boreholes from the coal mining era continue to pump orange acid mine water into rivers and streams.
The Lackawanna River is pristine until it hits the middle of Jermyn. After that, water-dwelling bugs don’t thrive so well amid heavy mine drainage, runoff from heaps of culm in the Midvalley, that contorts pH levels and dumps in dissolved metals.
Then there are more inconspicuous culprits.
Malfunctioning septic systems leak into lakes. Runoff from buildings and highways dumps sediment into streams.
The DEP assessed Lake Winola in Overfield Twp. with nutrient impairment because of fertilizer used at the Scranton Canoe Club golf course, which stretches across the peninsula that juts into the middle of the lake.
Their emerald fairways come at a cost.
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