It’s hard for me to picture what this spot looked like on this day 41 years ago. Hurricane Agnes came up the Chesapeake and slowly passed over the Susquehanna. 650 million gallons of water, mud and silt screamed over Conowingo dam with all 53 flood gates open as a result. Today was the exact opposite. I tried to picture the violent torrent as I lounged in the gentle calm flow just below the dam and looked upstream at a dry wall of concrete, not a cascade of mud and logs. If I were here on June 24, 1972, I would have been killed.
Two mature eagles launch from a water willow bed in the middle of the river. An immature takes off from the top of a river maple on the shore. These birds wouldn’t have been here in 1972 either. They were too rare. The insecticides, DDT, and DDE caused eagle egg shells to thin, which meant the eggs cracked before hatching and the national symbol was almost driven to extinction.
National environmental legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Federal Pesticide Control Act, which protected the eagles, all came about right around the time of Agnes. Before then it was accepted practice to dump everything into our waters. Hazardous waste and raw sewage went into our rivers untreated. It’s no wonder our rivers were dying and a natural disturbance, like a hurricane, almost killed the Chesapeake Bay. It was already weakened from everything we did to it.
Water quality has improved as a result of the regulations passed in the early 70’s, but we still struggle with too much nitrogen and sediment entering our rivers. Fish haven’t done as well.
The Maryland darter and hellbender were last seen in this area in the late 80’s and are expected to be gone. New arrivals assure a changed ecology. If hellbenders were here, I can’t see how they could survive the gaping predatory mouths of flathead catfish, which are native to most of the Mississippi drainage, but are introduced here. The fates of the hellbenders and darters were probably sealed long before the flatheads arrived. Shad are holding at historically low levels. The Susquehanna was a world class smallmouth bass fishery just a few years ago, but now the Susquehanna smallmouth are in trouble. Males have been found with ovaries and other smallies are turning up with lesions. No one can agree on a cause so there is no progress toward a solution. Our rivers are never safe and secure from damage we inflict. Conditions change and river ecology suffers.
I looked for fish that were here today rather than the ones we may have lost. There is still an amazing system here. The architecture of smoothed huge bedrock outcroppings that characterize this part of the river always gives an otherworldly feel. I started to see water willow rhizomes as I pulled myself along the bottom so I knew I was approaching an island or sand bar. Young fish use the protection of water willow stands and two juvenile log perch foraged on the bottom between the green shoots. Their tiger striping is always dramatic. Darters flitted around and a school of some kind of minnow turned in unison. Power in numbers.
And at one time there was power in environmental laws. We made great strides in protecting our rivers in the era of environmental regulation. The problems our rivers face today are largely created by each one of us rather than single large polluters. Non-point sources of pollution, pollution that doesn’t enter the river from the end of a pipe but rather operates more insidiously by coming from multiple sources, is much harder to control with regulation. There is a place for regulation, but there is a growing place for personal action. It’s not time to get complacent. It’s time to act.
A lot has changed since Agnes roared through here 41 years ago. Some changes have helped to restore the Susquehanna and all of our rivers, some changes have had the opposite effect. Let’s work so that a river snorkeler exploring this spot in 41 years can see clear progress.
Thanks to Erika Quesenbery Sturgill for the Agnes facts.