Two recent trips I’ve taken on the rivers of the Chesapeake brought home the diversity and complexity of our watershed, the great progress we have been making in reducing pollution, and the high level of public understanding and commitment still needed if we are to create a healthy system of rivers feeding into a restored Chesapeake.
The first trip was as a participant in this year’s Susquehanna Sojourn, the annual weeklong canoe trip down some major part of our great northern river, supplier of half the fresh water to the Bay. I recommend these trips to anyone who wants to be captured by the beauty and the lore of our part of the world. This year, as reported in last month’s Bay Journal, the object of our attention was the Juniata, largest of the Susquehanna’s tributaries.
Historically, the Juniata was a key link in the ill-starred Pennsylvania Canal, an effort by the Commonwealth to maintain Philadelphia’s pre-eminence over New York by building a competitor to the relatively flat Erie Canal up over the Alleghenies and down into Pittsburgh and the Ohio. After huge investments in locks and aqueducts and inclined planes and tunnels, suffice it to say it didn’t work. And besides, the railroads came along and rendered canals virtually obsolete overnight.
Today, the route of the Juniata is pleasantly strewn with the remnants of these works, which appear like the ruins of some ancient civilization as you paddle downstream. And because they have created rapids in places where they crossed the river, they have left us a source of that combination of fun and danger that makes canoeing such a treat.
But more than anything else, these annual sojourns impress upon me how much the Chesapeake watershed is a land of small towns and farm communities. To those of us who go to work or attend meetings most of the year in Annapolis or Washington or Richmond or Baltimore or Harrisburg, this is a reality that can be lost.
To those who live in these upstream communities, the return of local waters to good health in recent years marks a major improvement in the quality of their lives and a boost to the regional economy. They are proud of the way industries and local sewage treatment plants have been cleaned up and in the results of good management practices to control runoff from farms. The payout is clear and direct. For many it is the first time in a century that local kids can swim and fish in the river. And tourism is a growth industry.
It is also comforting to see how many local officials are aware that what is happening in their streams and rivers has a direct impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay. But it is also always useful to be reminded that these kinds of local benefits have to be a part of the payout for the efforts. It reinforces the Bay Program’s commitments to fish passage, improved management of anadromous fish in the Bay, phosphorous removal and other actions that improve conditions upstream.
The other trip was on the Anacostia River on a screeching hot summer Saturday, helping to provide the commentary for a Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat tour with a group of very hardy lawyers from the environmental law section of the District of Columbia Bar Association. The high point was to be able to carry out Lyndon Johnson’s dream and swim in a clean Potomac off Georgetown. But before that we took a look at the District’s less well treated tributary, the Anacostia.
The Anacostia is a classic urban river, which means it is trying to overcome decades of abuse and treatment as an open sewer. While the Potomac has a large watershed with high volume and rapid flow, the Anacostia is more like a bathtub, where whatever gets put in tends to slosh around for extended periods. The problem is made worse by the sewers combined with built in overflows that open up in times of storms and discharge stormwater mixed with raw sewage directly into the river. This happens an average of once a week in the Anacostia, and even more often in the spring, when the rivers are already overloaded with nutrients heading toward the Bay. In between storms, the Anacostia is not really a bad place to be, even if you are a fish. Our net was cast off the stern and brought in a couple hundred perch and other species.
Many cities across America have been struggling to deal with urban stormwater and combined sewer overflows; they are among the key remaining sources of water pollution. But the solutions are neither easy nor cheap. And unfortunately, the recent debates in Congress have shown that many members would rather have the problems go away than find a way to deal with them; both the House-passed Clean Water Act and the House budget mark attempt to put off the effort. So prospects of federal help for our urban rivers are not good. This means the solutions will lie more with states, local citizens, local governments and the search for more cost-effective ways.
The solutions for the Anacostia fit this mold; they will take time, commitment and creativity. Meanwhile, the sewers will overflow and the river will occasionally choke on the results. The special irony for the Anacostia is that among the contributors to that sewage overflow are the national headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Congress.
And the final twist that brings it all together? The chairman of the House committee in charge of rewriting the Clean Water Act represents a district that straddles the Juniata.