Ten thousand years ago, before the last ice age receded, a river, not yet named the Susquehanna, emptied into the ocean 30 to 50 miles to the east of what is now Hampton Roads, Virginia. The continental shelf was all dry land back then.
The ocean levels rose, flooding the coastal low lands until the current coastline was set. The banks of that river also flooded, forming what is now the tidal main stem of the Chesapeake Bay.
So think of it this way: The Chesapeake is no more than the tidal section of the Susquehanna River. The connections between the upstream, free-flowing portion of the Susquehanna and the tidal section down river (the Bay) are inseparable.
The free-flowing part of the Susquehanna supplies a full 50 percent of all the fresh water entering the tidal Chesapeake--the equivalent of all the other rivers combined.
From its beginnings in Cooperstown, New York, the river runs 444 miles until it crosses the fall line and becomes tidal at Havre de Grace, Maryland. All totaled, there are 36,000 miles of streams and creeks in the Susquehanna network. As Susan Stranahan wrote in her epic Susquehanna: River of Dreams, "No other eastern U.S. river delivers more water to the Atlantic Ocean than the Susquehanna. On an average day, that amounts to 25 billion gallons, enough water to supply the needs of every household in the United States, with a billion gallons left over."
The Susquehanna's fresh water is critical to the health and function of the estuary. In fact, the very definition of an estuary is routed in the collision of fresh and salt water. That collision can create a unique and rich ecosystem. From CBF's Bay "textbook," Turning the Tide, an estuary is, "capable of sustaining more life, more productivity for its size than virtually any other place on Earth."
Essential fresh water, yes, but the mighty Susquehanna delivers something else to the Bay--lots of pollution. On an annual basis, some 117 million pounds of nitrogen, 4.4 million pounds of phosphorus, and a whopping 2.4 billion pounds of sediment. Every year.
Pennsylvania itself designates 20 percent of the roughly 86,000 miles of its streams in the Commonwealth as "impaired." Forty percent of the impaired rivers and streams that serve as a source for drinking water are impaired because of agricultural runoff. Although this water is treated, cleaner water at the source would be easier and less costly to treat. In addition, up to 60 percent of the wells in the lower Susquehanna watershed have nitrate levels above human health standards.
Watershed wide, agriculture is the leading source of pollution.
Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has inherited a regulatory program that is not enforcing current laws. Only five inspectors are employed to review the practices of over 45,000 farms. At the current rate of five inspectors, it would take about 170 years to inspect all of Pennsylvania's farms just once.
Something has to change.
There is a huge job ahead for Pennsylvania. In order to comply with its Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint commitments and Clean Water Act mandates, the Commonwealth has declared that it must reduce more than 70 percent its nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution by the end of 2017. This will be a huge challenge. It is also one that will pay equally enormous environmental and economic benefits for Pennsylvanians as well as for Maryland and Virginia residents downstream.
According to CBF's economic report, fully implementing the Blueprint will deliver an annual increase of more than $6.2 billion in ecosystem services to Pennsylvania and, region wide, over $22 billion annually.
Throughout the Bay's six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed, there are significant challenges ahead. But just as Pennsylvania proudly owns the vast majority of the free-flowing Susquehanna, so too is it responsible for the largest share of pollution reduction required to save the Bay. We are heartened by the Wolf Administration's commitment to address these challenges, a commitment that we will not only encourage, but monitor.
--Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation
A version of the above originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Save the Bay Magazine
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