Acid rain harming Middle Delaware-Musconetcong basin
Report cites mercury in Bushkill Creek fish
| June 1, 2022
Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories exploring water quality in the nine basins in Pennsylvania that are part of the larger Delaware River watershed. How clean are your waterways, Pennsylvania?
A little over 78 miles of streams in the Middle Delaware-Musconetcong basin that had once been deemed to be attaining – or meeting federal clean water standards – have since been downgraded to “impaired” because of mercury found in fish, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection report has found.
The report listed “atmospheric deposition” – contaminants in the air that come from coal-fired plants, for example – as a source of the impairment. A little less than half of the 770 assessed miles in the basin, which is made up of parts of Bucks and Northampton Counties, were considered impaired, the report found.
Activists who track the health of the basin said the data were concerning but not particularly surprising, with one describing news media coverage of the findings as “alarmist.”
Mark Zakutansky, who serves on the board of trustees of the Delaware River Greenway Partnership, said the findings about the Middle Delaware-Musconetcong basin, which also extends into New Jersey, reflects “a long story of acid rain.”
Though the report said the source of mercury in fish was unknown Zakutansky said it underscored the need for scrubbers on fossil-fuel and coal-burning plants to reduce such emissions and the need to move to cleaner, greener renewable energy sources.
The report found backsliding of 20.5 miles of the Bushkill Creek and nearly 9.5 miles of the Little Bushkill Creek that once met federal clean water standards and that were now redesignated as impaired.
In addition, 25 miles of an unnamed tributary to Bushkill Creek and 13 miles of an unnamed tributary to Little Bushkill Creek previously listed as attaining were reassessed as being substandard and flagged for having fish not fit for consumption. However, no fish consumption advisories have been issued by Pennsylvania state agencies in connection to the creek. The DEP did not respond to an inquiry about why no advisory had not been issued.
The report evaluated streams in Pennsylvania based on meeting Clean Water Act standards in four categories: aquatic life, recreational uses, potable water and fish consumption.
That the data showed degradation of sections of the Bushkill Creek for fish consumption is “troubling” because users of the creek want to enjoy the outdoors and do use the creek for fishing, Zakutansky said.
Explanations for what happened
As for the underlying causes that led to sections of the Bushkill Creek, Little Bushkill Creek and its tributaries to becoming impaired, Zakutansky offered two theories:
He suggested that the quality of the data collection, science, hardware and technology have improved to allow for better detection of mercury.
And while acid rain is a problem that is decades old, it’s unlikely that the acidic deposition affecting this basin is new. It could be that the acidic deposits accumulated in the soil over time and, with heavier rainfalls because of climate change, the contaminants have been flushed into the stream at detectable levels, he said.
He commended the DEP for creating a “robust, digestable, accessible” report for the general public to learn more about water quality.
Rebecca Hayden, president of the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley, said most of the pollution issues in the Lehigh Valley are tied to sediment from bank erosion and urban runoff and stormwater, rising water temperatures and the removal of streamside vegetation.
The study’s findings about mercury in fish did not come as a great surprise, she said.
“My kids are in their late 30s and I was told when pregnant to avoid wild-caught fish due to that issue decades ago,” she wrote in an email. “So, while this impairment in the Bushkill was something the Lehigh Valley conservation community was hearing for the first time, it isn’t ‘shocking.’”
Kathy Altmann, president of the Bushkill Stream Conservancy, though, said the report “has rather blindsided us with this new information.” She said the group was surprised by the findings of mercury in the fish.
“My take on the report, personally, is that it certainly has caused a stir with many reporting agencies and that the best we can do as conservation organizations is to engage people to help find solutions,” she said.
Hayden said atmospheric fallout of mercury is beyond the scope of a local conservation organization like the one she leads.
“This impairment in the Bushkill watershed has caused a great deal of interest in the area by reporters,” she added. “Much of what has been written about it is ‘house-on-fire’ alarmist.”
“Obviously, it isn’t a good thing, but nor is it a catastrophe,” she wrote, adding that if residents want to help improve water quality locally, they could volunteer with a watershed or conservation organization.
“People freaking out is nowhere near as likely to make a difference on the ground than people showing up to clean up trash and plant trees,” she said.
Michael Mele contributed reporting.