Bay Journal

Lack of stream gages poses threat to managing Susquehanna

Monitoring data used to measure pollution, predict floodings and make withdrawal decisions.

  • By Rona Kobell on March 01, 2013
  • Comments are closed for this article.

In his introduction to the commission's annual report, the 2013 State of the Susquehanna, executive director Paul Swartz explained that the commission lost the source of funding for many stream gages in the river's 27,510-square-mile watershed.

The federal budget eliminated funding for the Susquehanna Flood Forecast and Warning System two years ago, and the commission has been trying to piece together other monies to continue its monitoring efforts.

The U.S. Geological Survey manages the stream gages, and the data it collects is used by the commission when deciding whether to allow water withdrawals for activities such as watering golf courses and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The gages also monitor pollution loads in the basin and help predict flood or drought conditions, allowing public officials to warn residents of coming trouble.

"I believe the greatest threat to water resource management in the Susquehanna basin is the ongoing uncertainty over funding for the stream gages," Swartz said in a press release accompanying the report. "Without the data from the stream gages, we will literally be 'flying blind.' A more viable, sustainable way of funding the stream gages must be secured before we lose our vital 'hidden infrastructure' that water resource managers rely upon so extensively."

The report looks at seven indicators of water quality and habitat. They are: water use and development; floods and droughts; stormwater; mine drainage; sediment and nutrients; human health and drinking water protection; and habitat and aquatic resources. The commission deals primarily with water quantity issues in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.

Overall, the report states that the basin's health is improving, with just 14 percent of streams impaired for aquatic life purposes. The most pristine water in the basin seems to come from the Chemung sub-basin, which includes the area around Elmira, NY.

The West Branch, which drains much of northcentral Pennsylvania, has the highest amount of severe impairments, with 15 percent of that watershed classified as severely impaired from discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

Work continues on streams that were historically impaired by acid mine drainage. Much of those efforts are in the anthracite coal region, around Hazelton and Scranton in Pennsylvania. About 20 mine drainage conduits are contributing 72 percent of the discharges, the commission's report said, and it would like to be able to treat those discharges before the water returns to local rivers and streams.

The commission continues to be concerned about diseases in the smallmouth bass population, and studies are continuing to determine the causes of the problem.

The full report is available at

About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


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