Cumberland County: Clean Your Water

Susquehanna River | How Healthy is Susquehanna River?

The Susquehanna River drains directly into the Chesapeake Bay. It carries pollutants from Pennsylvania with it.

The population in the Susquehanna basin increased by 19 percent --more than half a million people --between 1950 and 1980. Today, 3.8 million people live along her shores.

Changes in land use have accompanied this population growth. Areas of forest as well as cropland and pasture have all decreased, while the amount of space taken up by homes and businesses increased. All of these kinds of land use, with the exception of properly managed forests, can contribute to river pollution.

The Susquehanna's—and the Chesapeake Bay’s--pollutants fall into three broad categories: nutrients, sediments, and toxics. Nutrients include nitrogen and phosphorus which are applied to crops as fertilizer or manure on farm fields, parks and golf courses—and backyards. Farmers in the Susquehanna basin have historically applied a great deal of fertilizer to their crops.

In an average year, more than 60 percent of the phosphorus and 85 percent of the nitrogen found in the Susquehanna can be traced to non-point sources of pollution, such as agricultural and urban runoff. While agricultural pollution still contributes the highest percentage of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Susquehanna and to the Chesapeake Bay

Another source of excess nutrients is the discharge from sewage treatment plants. Plants that do not employ nutrient control measures may release large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen into the waterways.

 Altogether, the nutrients that are introduced into the Susquehanna make up 21 percent of the phosphorus and 40 percent of the nitrogen that is found in the Chesapeake Bay.

Once in the water, nitrogen and phosphorus can stimulate excess algal growth. As the algae die and settle to the bottom of the river or Bay, they decay and consume the oxygen needed by fi sh and other waterlife. Thick growth of algae also cuts down on the amount of sunlight in the water, which inhibits the growth of submerged aquatic plants needed by fish (and other animals) for food and shelter.

 On land, nitrogen can leach into the soil and contaminate the groundwater--the water supply for more than one million people in the Susquehanna River basin.

A second major pollutant in the Susquehanna is sediment. The land in the lower Susquehanna basin is intensively farmed, and conventional tillage --whereby the soil is disturbed at the time of planting and harvesting--is common practice. According to the Soil Conservation Service, erosion in the Susquehanna basin is very high--over seven tons of soil per acre of cropland are lost every year. Certain critical areas lose almost 18 tons of soil per acre per year! Construction sites in more urban areas can also accelerate erosion. The net result of such erosion is an increase in sediment, which clouds the water, blocks sunlight, and cloaks fish spawning habitat in layers of silt.

In addition to excess nutrients and sediment, 12,531 pounds of toxic metals flow through the Susquehanna each day, according to EPA's Chesapeake Bay management study. Toxic metals in the river include cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, and zinc. Industry and municipal wastewater treatment plants discharge toxics including metals and chlorinated organic compounds into the water while the atmosphere and urban stormwater runoff from city streets can add lead and zinc to the toxic mix. Farms also can con- tribute toxics to the Susquehanna in the form of pesticides and herbicides.

Toxics in water tend to attach to suspended particles, drop to the bottom, then re -suspend during storms. Toxics lower reproductive success and stress the health of aquatic animals. When toxics accumulate in the tissues of fish and shellfish, they pose a threat to human health. Toxics may also seep into the water table and contaminate vast amounts of groundwater.

Municipalities in the Susquehanna River Watershed:

All of Cumberland County, and at least a third of all Pennsylvania Counties, drain to the Susquehanna River.

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