Susquehanna lies low

River: Drought has subdued the stream that flows the length of Pennsylvania and has battered towns with its floods.

August 15, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

WEST FAIRVIEW, PA. -- The Susquehanna River, which more than once has ripped through this hamlet northwest of Harrisburg taking houses and cars with it, is deadly still now. So still and so low that green algae covers what little water pools behind the rocks.

Rocks that have never seen the light of day stretch on in ranks, bleaching in the unremitting sun and in some places reaching more than a mile to the east bank of the river, where traffic pours into the state capital.

Colonies of ducks, geese and egrets perch on the rocks and pad through the mud and emerging new islands, poking here and there for food.

Anglers have clambered over the rocks and stand in midstream, casting their lines in waters they couldn't have reached a year ago without a boat.

The Susquehanna, which Baltimore has tapped to supplement its dwindling water reservoirs, is flowing at near-record lows during the drought of 1999, and nowhere is it more visible than here, where the river slices out of the Blue Mountains and widens on its journey south.

Water that usually splashes and bubbles now mirrors the Harrisburg skyline in the morning haze.

"I've lived here 49 years and I've never seen it this low. Never," says Chester Sgrignoli, as he rocks back and forth in the glider on his porch in West Fairview, about 50 yards from the water. "They say it's 2.9 [feet], but it's gotta be lower than that."

He and his wife, Nancy, remember the flood of 1972, when water filled their living room and kitchen. And Mrs. Sgrignoli, who grew up in the house on Front Street, remembers hearing water filling the basement and slapping against the underside of the first floor during the flood of 1936.

"I don't like all these new grass patches," she says, referring to growing spots of green in the river. "But I like seeing the egrets. My daughter, she has some environmental job, she says that's a sign the water's cleaner."

The drought is a two-edged sword, says Dan Tredinnick, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

The lack of rain means there is little runoff from stream banks, which means there isn't much silt or excess nutrients in the water, perfect for spawning smallmouth bass last spring.

"With the low flows, we had a very strong year class," he says. "In three, four years, when they reach adult size, they're going to be some good fishing."

But because of the low flows, the aquatic insects that juvenile fish eat are dying, says Edward R. Brizena, chief of the division of water quality assessment and standards in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The underwater grasses that provide protection in shallow water near the river banks are high and dry, forcing the young into the same pools with the larger fish that prey on them.

And because it is shallow, moving slowly and exposed to the sun for so long, the water is getting warmer, endangering trout and other cold water fish.

"The water levels go down, you get algae, you have less dissolved oxygen, and that leads to fish kills," says Brizena.

"Now, we've been lucky so far, but I don't know how long that will last."

Weather forecasts in Pennsylvania, where 55 of 67 counties are under a drought emergency, are not promising: maybe some scattered thundershowers, but not the hurricane-level rains necessary to restore normal flows to the Susquehanna, which provides more fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay than all its other tributaries combined.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission has rights to water behind two U.S. Corps of Engineers dams upstream near the New York state line, and it could release 100 million gallons a day should the river flow go much lower.

"We're very close to that," says Susan Obleski, commission spokeswoman.

"If this keeps up, we could be there by the end of August."

The river was flowing past Harrisburg at 2,730 cubic feet per second Thursday, 200 cubic feet per second above the level that allows the commission to release the water and less than one-third the normal flow for the end of August.

The commission has given Baltimore and other communities emergency approval to draw water from the lake behind PECO Energy Co.'s Conowingo Dam, but it warned that it could ration water, depending on how long the drought continues.

"Everyone's going to have to cut back," says Obleski. "Baltimore would have to cut back."

As bad as this drought has gotten, it's been worse, Obleski says. The river was flowing at about 1,300 cubic feet per second during a drought in the mid-1960s.

Dennis Mulroy, who has rented personal watercraft and small boats from a floating dock about 50 yards off Harrisburg's City Island for six summers, says he's seen the river this low before, but not before mid- to late September.

"She's low, all right," he says. "She just started out low and stayed that way."

Although the river still is three to four feet deep off the island, thanks to a recreational dam a few miles downstream, the drought is cutting into his business, he says.

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