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An Endangered Susquehanna

Chesapeake Bay Tributary Tops List of Nation's Threatened Rivers

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page B01

Teeming with raw sewage, animal waste and fertilizer runoff, yet responsible for half the Chesapeake Bay's fresh water, the Susquehanna River is the most endangered river in the United States, according to a report released today by American Rivers, a national conservation group.

Pennsylvania's massive Susquehanna, the bay's biggest tributary, tops a list of 10 American rivers with uncertain futures, including Ohio's Little Miami River, Tennessee's Roan Creek and South Carolina's Santee River. Most of them, said American Rivers President Rebecca R. Wodder, are befouled by raw sewage and urban and farm runoff -- problems made worse by population growth and cuts to federal cleanup money.

Heavy rains from Hurricane Ivan caused the Susquehanna River to flood Port Deposit, Md., in September. (Matthew S. Gunby -- AP)

The Susquehanna exemplifies "the crisis we're highlighting in this report, that when it rains in America, raw sewage pours into our rivers and streams -- in an increasing amount," she said.

Uphill and upstream from the bay, thousands of acres of Pennsylvania crop- and pastureland abut the banks of the Susquehanna or the creeks and streams that feed it. The farms are so small and far-flung that state environmental agencies struggle to bring all of them into compliance with laws governing pollutant runoff.

The report also cites runoff from urban centers and the hundreds of sewer pipes that overflow in rainy weather, spewing human waste and garbage into the river.

Fertilizer nutrients and filth from the Susquehanna is a chief cause of the algae blooms and pollution that suck oxygen from the Chesapeake Bay, decimating crab, oyster, fish and aquatic plant populations. A University of Maryland consultant has estimated that the river contributes 40 percent of the nitrogen and 20 percent of the phosphorus -- two key ingredients in fertilizers -- to the bay.

"Pennsylvania is committed to reducing the nutrients and sediments that flow into our local streams and, in doing that, restoring the Chesapeake Bay," said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Charlie Young. "But the federal government is talking about reducing the amount of [water cleanup money] that goes to Pennsylvania by almost $25 million" next year, he said.

Among state-funded cleanup efforts has been a $250 million bond issue last year to pay for sewage treatment plant upgrades, Young said. This year, Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) is backing a proposal in the state legislature to issue another $800 million in bonds for water and sewage system improvements, to be voted on in coming days.

Wodder said federal cuts to Pennsylvania's cleanup budget reflect the situation nationally. For example, she said, the Bush administration's proposed 2006 budget calls for cutting spending on the federal clean-water fund to $730 million, from $1.1 billion last year.

"The feds are not contributing their fair share to solving the problem," she said.

Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency, said the pared-back funding of $730 million in the president's budget request "is part of a multi-year effort to commit $6.8 billion through 2011" to the fund, which he said is intended to provide seed money to state-based loan programs to improve sewage treatment infrastructure.

Overall, Grumbles said, the EPA favors more state-based water quality initiatives and "innovative" programs to combat pollution, such as pollution credits, which can be traded among top-polluting industries.

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