By Jeff Little
Michael Helfrich lives in a piece of history and spends much of his time trying to protect a living resource. Michael is the Susquehanna River Riverkeeper.
Michael’s home is a two-story stone house along the bank of Codorus Creek that dates back to 1761. Revolutionary author Thomas Paine lived there for a few months in 1778, when the Continental Congress made York, Pennsylvania our new nation’s capital. Michael doesn’t need too much of a spark to get him talking about the history of a property that is somewhat out of place, wedged as it is between an manufacturing plant and a rough York neighborhood (that he also serves as City Councilman).
We dropped by the house after fishing the Codorus, which is in the Susquehanna watershed, a watershed that is the largest on the East Coast. Michael showed me some 200-year-old culinary artifacts he’s acquired online and by sifting the gravelly streambed nearby. As we walked down to the bank of the creek, he explained how he got started as the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.
“In 2002, I started the Codorus Creek Improvement Partnership. At that time, the Waterkeeper Alliance wanted me to take on the entire Susquehanna, and frankly I didn’t know a damn thing. So I said, No, let me work on the Codorus for a while,” says Helfrich. “After we cleaned up some stuff on the Codorus, I became the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper in 2005.”
A Riverkeeper is a connection between watershed users and governmental and non-governmental agencies that are tasked with caring for and supporting the life history of the river.
“I can remember an area where they were stripping all the trees along this creek in southern York County,” says Helfrich. “They weren’t doing anything to stop all that mud from coming into some nice trout streams. We were able to get the enforcement folks out there and make sure they put erosion control mechanisms in place. That started with the trout fishermen seeing a problem and contacting me. With the smallmouth, we get calls from anglers all the time – mostly fish with lesions on them. That helps us get good information to the biologists to figure out the diseases we’ve seen on the Susquehanna.”
Before 2004, this writer didn’t know what a Riverkeeper was. I was into my second year of guiding from a kayak, and a mile into a 10 mile float trip with a client. We drifted up on a 30 foot wide eddy that had enough dead fish floating in it that a mouse could have walked from one end to the other and not touched water. I ended the trip there, offered to refund my clients money, and we paddled it out so I could call someone.
At the time, there was no Riverkeeper for that watershed. It took me over a week of phone tag with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Eventually, I spoke with someone who told me that, “We’ve known about it for the last two days. If we knew about it when you were out a week ago, we might have collected better evidence on what caused the fish kill. You see, the evidence is always washing downstream.”
Friend and fellow Shenandoah River guide Jeff Kelble took on the position of Shenandoah Riverkeeper after the kill of 2004 wiped out an average of 80-percent of the adult smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish from the river. Since 2006, through both grass roots conservation efforts in the valley and legal action when needed, Jeff’s actions in that watershed have led to improved water quality and a partially recovered fishery.
A Riverkeeper’s job is to do whatever is necessary to protect their watershed, which can come down to enforcing the Clean Water Act or other environmental laws within their waterway. After a decade, Jeff took over the Potomac Riverkeeper Network as president and is working to manage support multiple Riverkeepers in the Potomac Drainage (Shenandoah, Upper Potomac, Potomac and, soon, a Lower Potomac Riverkeeper).
Many mid-Atlantic smallmouth rivers have been affected by fish kills, poor recruitment and intersex traits. The latter is exhibited in smallmouth bass by immature fish eggs in the testes of male smallmouth. The intersexual bass and decline in overall fish health are indicators of poor water quality.
Beyond a kayak angler’s inherent interest in the health of their fishery, what can we do to protect our local waterway? Michael Helfrich says anglers are his eyes and ears within the Susquehanna watershed and he relies on them for reports on both the fishery and the habitat.
As I left Michael, he looked out over across a park next to his home seeing where neighborhood kids had knocked over a trash can and strewn trash across a field next to basketball courts. He shook his head, grabbed a rake, and went back to work keeping his watershed and his neighborhood clean.
To find out if the waters you fish have a Riverkeeper or Waterkeeper, complete a search on the Waterkeeper Alliance website. If you are lucky enough to have one protecting your waters, enter the info in your phone.
You never know when you might have the opportunity to play an important role in protecting your fishery. Riverkeepers and Waterkeepers not only want to hear from you, they enjoy having a connection to the paddling and fishing community. It takes ALL of our eyes and ears to cover the immensity of our nation’s precious watershed.
Find out more about the fishing tournament the author is directing to benefit the Lower Susquehanna.