One Day + Eight Water Bottles = A Creek and River Odyssey

Earlier this month, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) asked members to send in bottles of water from their local creeks and rivers as part of a campaign to show the Chesapeake Executive Council that residents of the Bay watershed are demanding "Clean Water for a Change." Residents from across the watershed sent in hundreds of bottles and stories about their local waterways.

During that time, CBF Senior Naturalist and author John Page Williams was on his way back to Annapolis from a meeting in Union County, Pa. He decided to collect water samples for the campaign along the way. As he drove, the following story about the connection between the Bay and its tributaries, and the tributaries and the people who live and work on them, began to emerge.

CBF Senior Naturalist and author John Page Williams Water in streams, creeks, and rivers is by its very nature interconnected. Recently, I received a great lesson in this interconnectedness while gathering bottles of such water for the Chesapeake Executive Council meeting from a number of Chesapeake tributaries in central Pennsylvania. The occasion was the trip home from the annual meeting of the Merrill W. Linn Conservancy and its associated Buffalo Creek Watershed Alliance in Mifflinburg, Union County. As I drove the rolling hills south over tributary creeks and along the Susquehanna toward home near Annapolis, a story began to unfold.

Buffalo Creek flows through Mifflinburg and under a lovely old covered bridge. The members of the Watershed Alliance had talked enthusiastically the evening before about their monthly water quality monitoring project, and about an upcoming plan to install a lime-feed system in the headwaters to neutralize the nasty effects of acid rain on the creek and its creatures. They also reminisced about happy days paddling the creek together in canoes and kayaks. Intelligent, dedicated local stewardship like this is one of the factors that keep me believing we CAN save the Bay, and its streams, creeks, and rivers.

The next stop was Penns Creek, just to the south. The upper reaches of this large Susquehanna tributary form one of the Commonwealth's finest wild trout streams, though its lower reaches warm up enough to shift the balance to smallmouth bass and sunfish. Penns has its own dedicated watershed association, Penns Creek Potterysharing many members with the Linn Conservancy and the Buffalo Creek Alliance. Pat Arduini, a staunch Linn Conservancy member and an outdoor educator for the Union county schools, had been part of a monitoring crew sampling Penns Creek the day before.

 As I stopped to collect water, I met Bill Lynch, owner of Penns Creek Pottery and another Linn Conservancy member, who has lived by the creek and operated his pottery in an old mill for the past thirty years. Yes, he lives there because of the creek, and he is another dedicated local steward.

Several miles to the south, the road (Route 104) crossed Middle Creek at Middleburg. I stopped at a creekside caf� for a sandwich and found several anglers looking for stocked trout.

Angler on Middle Creek, Middleburg, PA Middle Creek was showing the runoff effects of heavy rain in Pennsylvania's lower tier counties. Stocked trout don't seem to mind it, but the creek is too muddy and warm for wild trout. One angler remarked that the semi-tame stocked rainbows' preferred bait is kernels of canned corn. He also proudly told a story of bringing his son there to catch his first trout. I hope these anglers begin to realize that they have an important stake in Middle Creek's future. 

The next stop was Mahantango Creek. The only people around were a road repair crew, who seemed to be paying close attention to preventing soil erosion from their project, because the creek was running clear just downstream. I recalled that Mahantango is one of the favorite canoe field trip sites for CBF's Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Watershed Education Program.

Sweigarts Island, PA Below the Mahantango, Route 104 blended into Routes 11/15, which parallel the Susquehanna. I stopped at the Sweigart's Island Wildlife Management Area boat landing to fill a bottle with clear river water and recalled that the students and staff on CBF's summer, 2006 Expedition Susquehanna had camped on the island in heavy rain, just before the river rose to flood stage, forcing all of them back to land for nearly a week. On this day, though, the river was placid and lovely.

Juniata River, Duncannon, PA A few miles to the south, I stopped in Duncannon at John Cunningham's Riverside Campground, a great gathering place for river rats and smallmouth anglers. The campground sits right at the mouth of the Juniata River, a major Susquehanna tributary whose output of fresh water is about the equivalent of Virginia's Rappahannock. Here the effects of rain in the lower tier counties showed clearly, especially because the storms had come just after farmers had tilled their land. Clearly there is plenty of restoration work yet to do in this big river's watershed.

John Cunningham said that the Juniata was clearing, but that most of his anglers were (understandably) fishing the main Susquehanna above the confluence.

Susquehanna River, Wormleysburg, PA In Wormleysburg, across from Harrisburg, I stopped at a landing to dip a bottle in the Susquehanna again. Here the river was carrying water from all of its tributaries to the north, and it especially showed the effects of the Juniata's flow in its now-muddy color. "Yes, we all live downstream," I reflected aloud.

Severn River, Annapolis, MD Arriving home in Maryland near sunset, I walked down to the Severn River in front of my house to dip the last bottle. The river here is about four miles upstream of Annapolis. It is tidal and brackish, but the salinity right now is only 7.5 parts per thousand, or about 25 percent that of sea water, and conversely, about 75 percent fresh. A small portion of its fresh water has come from its own small watershed, but most has come down the Chesapeake from the Susquehanna and in through its mouth on the tides. As I looked at the sun setting over the river, I realized that I was probably looking at water that had come from each of the tributaries I had sampled earlier in the day. 

Yes, these waterways are all interconnected, and so are all the stories they told me on this day. That is a complicated message, but it's the kind that the Chesapeake usually gives us, mixing hope and encouragement with deep concern for the many ways we hinder the Bay ecosystem, even as we seek to restore it. It is simply too complex to give us easy answers. There is hope, however, in facing the challenges clearly, combining the efforts of local people with the promising ones of state and federal government.  We CAN heal the Chesapeake, if we care enough.

 John Page Williams, CBF Senior Naturalist

Follow John Page Williams' odyssey on our "Clean Water for a Change" map.

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