Susquehanna tops national endangered rivers list

by Joe Rominiecke

April 13, 2005 Washington - Threatened by continuing sewage pollution and a proposed dam, the Susquehanna River was named America's most endangered river Wednesday.

American Rivers, a Washington-based river conservation group, placed the Susquehanna atop its annual list, "American's Most Endangered Rivers," which highlights rivers that face significant dangers in the coming year to water quality, wildlife and public health.

Aging sewage treatment plants along the Susquehanna's 444-mile course and a dam under consideration in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., are damaging both the river and the Chesapeake Bay, where the Susquehanna ends after flowing from New York state south through Pennsylvania and Maryland. The river alone deposits 40 percent of all nitrogen pollutants in the Chesapeake.

Not all of the 10 rivers on the list are already polluted, said Rebecca Wodder, American Rivers president, at a press conference.

"Many of them are currently in pristine condition," she said. "These are the rivers with the most uncertain futures. These are the rivers whose future hangs in the balance."

The other rivers on the list are McCrystal Creek, in New Mexico; the Fraser River, in Colorado; the Skykomish, in Washington state; Roan Creek, in Tennessee; the Santee, in South Carolina; the Little Miami, in Ohio; the Price, in Utah; and the Tuolumne and Santa Clara, in California.

They face threats that include overdevelopment, sewage pollution, dam construction, methane drilling and water withdrawal.

The report targeted sewage pollution as the most alarming. Wodder cited an Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 860 billion gallons of raw sewage and storm water flow directly into rivers and streams in the United States every year. She said 3.5 million Americans get sick every year from coming in contact with polluted water.

"Most Americans might be excused for thinking that, in America, in the 21st century, there would be laws and sewage treatment plants that would keep this from happening, but that's not always the case anymore," she said.

According to the report, the 600,000 miles of sewer pipes in the United States have an average age of 33 years. The EPA has estimated that the cost to replace aging sewer infrastructure across the country would be between $330 billion and $450 billion.

Meanwhile, the EPA has proposed allowing sewage treatment plants in the United States to use a blending process, in which partially treated sewage is mixed with treated sewage during high water flow before it is dumped back into rivers and streams. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., introduced the Save Our Waters From Sewage Act in March in the House of Representatives to block the EPA from finalizing this proposal, and he signed a letter along with 134 other members of Congress in February urging the EPA not to allow blending.

"The EPA moving forward with this irresponsible policy means more sewage dumping, puts health at risk and threatens our environmental integrity of our most treasured natural resource - our water," he said.

EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said the blending process maintains required water quality levels and is necessary only when high volumes of storm water threaten to overwhelm a sewage treatment plant's capacity. The EPA has been accepting public comments on the proposal since November 2003, but no timetable has been set for finalizing it, Kemery said.

Stupak and Wodder called on Congress to restore money to the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which will drop from $1.35 billion this year to $730 million under the current budget proposal for 2006.

Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the bay "a shadow of its former self" due to pollution, much of it from the Susquehanna. He held up a bottle of murky brown water as he spoke Wednesday.

"You don't have to be a scientist to look at the water and see the problem, and you don't have to be a political scientist to read the will of the public that clean water is important," he said. "What happens in Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna literally drives the whole water quality of the northern bay, so it's essential."

The full "America's Most Endangered Rivers Report of 2005" can be found online at:

Source: Scripps Howard Foundation