Column: New Clean water violations on Loyalsock should spark change via improved hellbender protection
The following is a column by Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky. You can contact him directly about this or other topics at firstname.lastname@example.org
In a climactic scene from the 2009 movie “To Save a Life,” a teenager challenges a sense of apathy within his youth group after the suicide of bullied friend by emphatically asking the group a question:
“What’s the point of all of this if you are not going to let this change you?”
The scene and specifically that question popped into my mind recently while walking into the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association office and glancing at a matted print celebrating the 2018 River of the Year recipient – the Loyalsock Creek.
What is the point of these sort of public activities if we aren’t going to let them truly change us and how we impact the environment?
It is important to raise awareness, to let people know we care about a certain topic or waterway or species much the same way it is important to validate someone who feels at the end of his/her rope, worthless and under siege from bullies or other seemingly unescapable trials and tribulations.
Of course, words and promises only go so far. Our actions after that acknowledgement – or lack thereof – speak much louder.
Earlier this month, both the Loyalsock Creek and the Eastern hellbender were dealt a new black eye.
The Department of Environmental Protection identified multiple Clean Stream Law violations involving excessive sedimentation at a site where Pennsylvania General Energy is installing a pipeline under the creek and the slopes on either side. These violations include “failure to meet erosion and sediment control requirements and to plan earth disturbance activities to minimize their impact.”
Concerns of sedimentation in that stretch of creek predate the early September high-water incidents that ultimately sparked the DEP inspection of the site.
“I was doing some diving research on the Loyalsock one day in August,” recalled Dr. Peter Petokas, an expert on the Eastern hellbender. “When I went in, at first, the water seemed clean, but after diving for only about an hour, the water was completely opaque. I couldn’t see anything.”
Excessive sedimentation can completely wipe out habitat necessary for hellbender survival, according to Petokas, which he added can come in two types.
“There are cracks in the bedrock walls which may not sound like important habitat, but the bedrock walls serve as controls for flows in creeks,” said Petokas. “When water hits the walls, it scoops out a deep channel and that channel is a favorite place for hellbenders to hang out.”
Some hellbenders reside in those cracks in the walls, some use big rock structures on the bottom of creeks, he added.
In cases where there is construction along a creek that doesn’t follow erosion guidelines, “that sedimentation literally buries rock structures on the bottom of creeks and fills the interstitial spaces in rock. As an example, there is a specific habitat for hellbenders we have been studying since 2006 that no longer exists due to this filling process of fine sediment and sand.”
While certain human activities along our creeks may be inevitable, Petokas suggests there are ways to do these activities which promotes proper creek flows and reduces sedimentation concerns.
“Instead of leveling out a stream, which makes it shallow and slows it down, create a rock chain that makes the channel deeper and faster,” said Petokas. “There are ways to plan out these projects that can help create habitat instead of destroying it.”
One move that would spark a more proactive process of how we interact with waterways such as the Loyalsock and other creeks that may be home to the hellbender is to reconsider the species’ status within our state.
“State agencies should be doing more to address activities on some of these waterways, but don’t do so because the hellbender is not considered a threatened or endangered species,” said Petokas. “At the moment, it is simply a ‘species of special concern’ which doesn’t create any real change outside of there being a no-take rule.”
The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association has joined several other groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association to challenge the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to deny Endangered Species Act protections for the eastern hellbender.
“The hellbender is a sentinel for clean, free-flowing waters and that habitat is unfortunately ever harder to come by,” said Brian Segee, legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Program. “Protections will give the hellbender a fighting chance by prohibiting actions that kill or harm them, requiring government decisionmakers to consider the impacts of their actions on the species, designating critical habitat and directing greater funding to hellbender conservation efforts.”
One of the holdups at the federal level is that there are few populations of the species that are “somewhat OK” in a few spots nationwide, according to Petokas, but that isn’t the case in Pennsylvania and especially in the Susquehanna River Basin.
“As a scientist working in this watershed, I know this animal is nearly gone – they can only be found in a very few remote places which, to me, suggests they should be considered at least threatened statewide, and most likely endangered,” said Petokas.
Several years have passed since the public declarations that both the Loyalsock Creek and the Eastern hellbender deserve our attention and increased measures of protection, and yet the threats against both are still very real.
May the recent issues on the Loyalsock renew our promises to step up our protections of these resources. I would suggest that realistically starts by re-examining the statewide designation of the Eastern hellbender.
In the 2019 press release about the hellbender’s new role (at that time) as state amphibian, Gov. Wolf shared the following comment:
“Today’s ceremony is about more than a declaration of an official state amphibian. It’s about reaffirming our commitment to protecting our waters in Pennsylvania. Clean water is critical for the hellbender and we need to continue to do our part to improve water quality in the commonwealth so that the state first amphibian can thrive.”
I urge you, Gov. Wolf, in your final few months in office, to fulfill your commitment as a “Hellbender Defender” by expediting the process for real protections under a threatened or endangered status – something that will have a greater ripple effect to “improve water quality in the commonwealth” well beyond the hellbender itself.
Otherwise, what’s the point of all this if we aren’t going to let it change us for the better?
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.