Like white tufts of shaving cream floating atop bathwater toward a nearby drain, seemingly bright-white patches of foam have been a regular early morning sight on the lower Penns Creek lately.
In a May 2020 blog post, we talked about foams on waterways and how to tell when they are naturally occurring vs. when they could be a sign of pollution.
Usually, foams that have a dirty look and an earthy or fishy smell can typically be connected with natural organic matter such as fats, lipids and deteriorating leaf matter getting whipped up in rapids much like egg whites can be whipped into stiff peaks of frothy meringue.
However, after interacting with the substance, I feel much more confident it was a natural phenomenon where all the right conditions had merged -- the necessary organic matter from early autumn's leaves and other debris mixing together and churned up by rapids running over additional rock structures exposed due to a lower-than-normal water table. Lack of sunlight overnight, a differential in temperatures between the water and the quickly cooling fall air and likely numerous other factors all combined into a perfect foamy storm.
Interestingly, around the same time as my foam-focused investigation, I was contacted by a researcher out of the University of Florida in relation to a report we shared out concerning PFAS testing and discovery in the Susquehanna River. He is doing a study on PFAS -- chemicals used in a wide variety of products (firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, rain gear, certain cosmetics, etc.) that naturally repel water -- and how they may be more concentrated in ocean/river/creek foams.
I collected a sample of the Penns Creek foam and sent it to this researcher to be included in his study. I am anxious to see what he finds as it would make a lot of sense for these unnatural water-resistant chemicals to whip up into the foams we find on our waterways.
As we wait for results, I wanted to share this story as an example of how curiosity and follow-through can lead to some interesting discoveries. As you explore the creeks, lakes and interconnected river system in our greater watershed, I encourage you to follow your own curiosity as you come across things you may not understand or think odd or out of place.
Share your discoveries with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 570-768-6300. Also, if you haven't yet explored the Water Reporter app and our interactive map of reports, I would encourage you to visit middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/report-a-concern.html, download the app and share what you find.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.