Dam Thoughtless

By Mara Kahn


This article first appeared in Canoe & Kayak, December 2005.


Ever paddled below a giant inflatable rubber dam? Neither have most of the citizens of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, but local officials are floating a proposal to build one across the Susquehanna River, creating a deep-water playground for powerboaters and other recreationists. Sounds like a reasonable plan until you consider the fact that 16 sewage outfalls pour untreated human waste into the current, which would pool behind the dam. Sometimes all it takes is an evening thunderstorm to start the raw stuff spewing.


Despite such gross violations of its integrity, the Susquehanna is still a mighty river. Flowing 444 miles through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, it cuts through five ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, drains a 13-million-acre watershed, and every minute delivers an astonishing 18 million gallons of freshwater into North America’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay.


But for all its might, the Susquehanna takes a lot of abuse. Industrial cities dump raw or poorly treated wastewater into its channels, large hydroelectric dams block its flow, and upstream coal-mining has left a legacy of acid mine pollution. And this year the Susquehanna-long honored by canoeists and anglers for its peaceful beauty and world-class smallmouth bass fishing-received the dubious distinction of being named America’s most endangered river.


American Rivers, the national organization that granted the Susquehanna its No. 1 designation, made this damning statement in its press release announcing the nation’s 10 most endangered streams: “If elected officials aren’t willing to invest the resources necessary to clean up the Susquehanna River and restore the Bay, an irreplaceable piece of America’s natural and cultural heritage will be lost.”


Mary Liskow knows and loves the Susquehanna. Manager of Blue Mountain Outfitters in Marysville, Pennsylvania, she delights in watching canoeists and kayakers enjoy the river and hopes its endangered status will generate more awareness. “Although it seems at first to be a negative ‘handle,’ it’s often this kind of notoriety that can serve as a wake-up call,” said Liskow. “As more and more people become aware of what a tremendous resource the Susquehanna is, hopefully a groundswell of support will grow for its protection.”



To learn about America’s other nine “Most Endangered Rivers,” go to www.americanrivers.org.



The embattled Susquehanna doesn’t need another $14 million dam. That money would be far better spent replacing and updating deficient sewer-treatment systems throughout the watershed. Besides, it’s hard to imagine boaters flocking to a reservoir that will likely become a virtual cesspool of algae blooms and deposits of suspended wastes.

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