Three Mile Island and Agnes: Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago this week, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes drifted north through the Susquehanna River basin as a tropical storm and saturated the entire watershed with wave after wave of torrential rains.  The storm caused catastrophic flooding along the river’s main stem and along many major tributaries.  The nuclear power station at Three Mile Island, then under construction, received its first major flood.  Here are some photos taken during the climax of that flood on June 24, 1972.  The river stage as measured just upstream of Three Mile Island at the Harrisburg gauge crested at 33.27 feet, more than 10 feet above flood stage and almost 30 feet higher than the stage at present.  At Three Mile Island and Conewago Falls, the river was receiving additional flow from the raging Swatara Creek, which drains much of the anthracite coal region of eastern Schuylkill County—where rainfall from Agnes may have been the heaviest.

Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  From the river’s east shore at the mouth of Conewago Creek, Three Mile Island’s “south bridge” crosses the Susquehanna along the upstream edge of Conewago Falls.  The flood crested just after covering the roadway on the span.  Floating debris including trees, sections of buildings, steel drums, and rubbish began accumulating against the railings on the bridge’s upstream side, leading observers to speculate that the span would fail.  When a very large fuel tank, thousands of gallons in capacity, was seen approaching, many thought it would be the straw that would break the camel’s back.  It wasn’t, but the crashing sounds it made as it struck the bridge then turned and began rolling against the rails was unforgettable.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  In this close-up of the preceding photo, the aforementioned piles of junk can be seen along the upstream side of the bridge (behind the sign on the right).  The fuel tank struck and was rolling on the far side of this pile.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  Three Mile Island’s “south bridge” as it appeared this morning, June 24,2022.
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  The railroad along the east shore at Three Mile Island’s “south bridge” was inundated by rising water.  This flooded automobile was one of many found in the vicinity.  Some of these vehicles were overtaken by rising water while parked, others were stranded while being driven, and still others floated in from points unknown.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  A modern view of the same location.
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  At the north end of Three Mile Island, construction on Unit 1 was halted.  The completed cooling towers can be seen to the right and the round reactor building can be seen behind the generator building to the left.  The railroad grade along the river’s eastern shore opposite the north end of the island was elevated enough for this train to stop and shelter there for the duration of the flood.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  Three Mile Island Unit 1 as it appears today: shut down, defueled, and in the process of deconstruction.
Three Mile Island flooding from Agnes 1972.
1972-  In March of 1979, the world would come to know of Three Mile Island Unit 2.  During Agnes in June of 1972, flood waters surrounding the plant resulted in a delay of its construction.  In the foreground, note the boxcar from the now defunct Penn Central Railroad.  (Larry L. Coble, Sr. image)
2022-  A current look at T.M.I. Unit 2, shut down since the accident and partial meltdown in 1979.

Pictures capture just a portion of the experience of witnessing a massive flood.  Sometimes the sounds and smells of the muddy torrents tell us more than photographs can show.

Aside from the booming noise of the fuel tank banging along the rails of the south bridge, there was the persistent roar of floodwaters, at the rate of hundreds of thousands of cubic feet per second, tumbling through Conewago Falls on the downstream side of the island.   The sound of the rapids during a flood can at times carry for more than two miles.  It’s a sound that has accompanied the thousands of floods that have shaped the falls and its unique diabase “pothole rocks” using abrasives that are suspended in silty waters after being eroded from rock formations in the hundreds of square miles of drainage basin upstream.  This natural process, the weathering of rock and the deposition of the material closer to the coast, has been the prevailing geologic cycle in what we now call the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed since the end of the Triassic Period, more than two hundred million years ago.

More than the sights and sounds, it was the smell of the Agnes flood that warned witnesses of the dangers of the non-natural, man-made contamination—the pollution—in the waters then flowing down the Susquehanna.

Because they float, gasoline and other fuels leaked from flooded vehicles, storage tanks, and containers were most apparent.  The odor of their vapors was widespread along not only along the main stem of the river, but along most of the tributaries that at any point along their course passed through human habitations.

Blended with the strong smell of petroleum was the stink of untreated excrement.  Flooded treatment plants, collection systems overwhelmed by stormwater, and inundated septic systems all discharged raw sewage into the river and many of its tributaries.  This untreated wastewater, combined with ammoniated manure and other farm runoff, gave a damaging nutrient shock to the river and Chesapeake Bay.

Adding to the repugnant aroma of the flood was a mix of chemicals, some percolated from storage sites along watercourses, and yet others leaking from steel drums seen floating in the river.  During the decades following World War II, stacks and stacks of drums, some empty, some containing material that is very dangerous, were routinely stored in floodplains at businesses and industrial sites throughout the Susquehanna basin.  Many were lifted up and washed away during the record-breaking Agnes flood.  Still others were “allowed” to be carried away by the malicious pigs who see a flooding stream as an opportunity to “get rid of stuff”.  Few of these drums were ever recovered, and hundreds were stranded along the shoreline and in the woods and wetlands of the floodplain below Conewago Falls.  There, they rusted away during the next three decades, some leaking their contents into the surrounding soils and waters.  Today, there is little visible trace of any.

During the summer of ’72, the waters surrounding Three Mile Island were probably viler and more polluted than at any other time during the existence of the nuclear generating station there.  And little, if any of that pollution originated at the facility itself.

The Susquehanna’s floodplain and water quality issues that had been stashed in the corner, hidden out back, and swept under the rug for years were flushed out by Agnes, and she left them stuck in the stinking mud.

Pick Up and Get Out of the Floodplain

The remnants of Hurricane Ida are on their way to the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  After making landfall in Louisiana as a category 4 storm, Ida is on track to bring heavy rain to the Mid-Atlantic States beginning tonight.

Tropical Depression Ida moving slowly toward the northeast.   (NOAA/GOES image)

Rainfall totals are anticipated to be sufficient to cause flooding in the lower Susquehanna basin.  As much as six to ten inches of precipitation could fall in parts of the area on Wednesday.

Rainfall forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)

Now would be a good time to get all your valuables and junk out of the floodways and floodplains.  Move your cars, trucks, S.U.V.s, trailers, and boats to higher ground.  Clear out the trash cans, playground equipment, picnic tables, and lawn furniture too.  Get it all to higher ground.  Don’t be the slob who uses a flood as a chance to get rid of tires and other rubbish by letting it just wash away.

Vehicles parked atop fill that has been dumped into a stream’s floodplain are in double trouble.  Fill displaces water and exasperates flooding instead of providing refuge from it.  Better move these cars, trucks, and trailers to higher ground, posthaste.

Flooding not only has economic and public safety impacts, it is a source of enormous amounts of pollution.  Chemical spills from inundated homes, businesses, and vehicles combine with nutrient and sediment runoff from eroding fields to create a filthy brown torrent that rushes down stream courses and into the Susquehanna.  Failed and flooded sewage facilities, both municipal and private, not only pollute the water, but give it that foul odor familiar to those who visit the shores of the river after a major storm.  And of course there is the garbage.  The tons and tons of waste that people discard carelessly that, during a flood event, finds its way ever closer to the Susquehanna, then the Chesapeake, and finally the Atlantic.  It’s a disgraceful legacy.

Now is your chance to do something about it.  Go out right now and pick up the trash along the curb, in the street, and on the sidewalk and lawn—before it gets swept into your nearby stormwater inlet or stream.  It’s easy to do, just bend and stoop.  While you’re at it, clean up the driveway and parking lot too.

Secure your trash and pick up litter before it finds its way into the storm sewer system and eventually your local stream.  It’ll take just a minute.
This is how straws and other plastics find their way to the ocean and the marine animals living there, so pick that stuff up!  Did you know that keeping stormwater inlets clean can prevent street flooding and its destructive extension into the cellars of nearby homes and businesses?
There’s another straw.  Pick it and the rest of that junk up now, before the storm.  Don’t wait for your local municipality or the Boy Scouts to do it.  You do it, even if it’s not your trash.

We’ll be checking to see how you did.

And remember, flood plains are for flooding, so get out of the floodplain and stay out.

2020: A Good Year

You say you really don’t want to take a look back at 2020?  Okay, we understand.  But here’s something you may find interesting, and it has to do with the Susquehanna River in 2020.

As you may know, the National Weather Service has calculated the mean temperature for the year 2020 as monitored just upriver from Conewago Falls at Harrisburg International Airport.  The 56.7° Fahrenheit value was the highest in nearly 130 years of monitoring at the various stations used to register official climate statistics for the capital city.  The previous high, 56.6°, was set in 1998.

Though not a prerequisite for its occurrence, record-breaking heat was accompanied by a drought in 2020.  Most of the Susquehanna River drainage basin experienced drought conditions during the second half of the year, particularly areas of the watershed upstream of Conewago Falls.  A lack of significant rainfall resulted in low river flows throughout late summer and much of the autumn.  Lacking water from the northern reaches, we see mid-river rocks and experience minimal readings on flow gauges along the lower Susquehanna, even if our local precipitation happens to be about average.

Back in October, when the river was about as low as it was going to get, we took a walk across the Susquehanna at Columbia-Wrightsville atop the Route 462/Veteran’s Memorial Bridge to have a look at the benthos—the life on the river’s bottom.

As we begin our stroll across the river, we quickly notice Mallards and a Double-crested Cormorant (far left) feeding among aquatic plants.  You can see the leaves of the vegetation just breaking the water’s surface, particularly behind the feeding waterfowl.  Let’s have a closer look.
An underwater meadow of American Eelgrass (Vallisneria americana) as seen from atop the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge at Columbia-Wrightsville.  Also known as Freshwater Eelgrass, Tapegrass, and Wild Celery, it is without a doubt the Susquehanna’s most important submerged aquatic plant.  It grows in alluvial substrate (gravel, sand, mud, etc.) in river segments with moderate to slow current.  Water three to six feet deep in bright sunshine is ideal for its growth, so an absence of flooding and the sun-blocking turbidity of muddy silt-laden water is favorable.
Plants in the genus Vallisneria have ribbon-like leaves up to three feet in length that grow from nodes rooted along the creeping stems called runners.  A single plant can, over a period of years, spread by runners to create a sizable clump or intertwine with other individual plants to establish dense meadows and an essential wildlife habitat.
An uprooted segment of eelgrass floats over a thick bed of what may be parts of the same plant.  Eelgrass meadows on the lower Susquehanna River were decimated by several events: deposition of anthracite coal sediments (culm) in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, dredging of the same anthracite coal sediments during the mid-twentieth century, and the ongoing deposition of sediments from erosion occurring in farm fields, logged forests, abandoned mill ponds, and along denuded streambanks.  Not only has each of these events impacted the plants physically by either burying them or ripping them out by the roots, each has also contributed to the increase in water turbidity (cloudiness) that blocks sunlight and impairs their growth and recovery.
A submerged log surrounded by beds of eelgrass forms a haven for fishes in sections of the river lacking the structure found in rock-rich places like Conewago Falls.  A period absent of high water and sediment runoff extended through the growing season in 2020 to allow lush clumps of eelgrass like these to thrive and further improve water quality by taking up nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus.  Nutrients used by vascular plants including eelgrass become unavailable for feeding detrimental algal blooms in downstream waters including Chesapeake Bay.
Small fishes and invertebrates attract predatory fishes to eelgrass beds.  We watched this Smallmouth Bass leave an ambush site among eelgrass’s lush growth to shadow a Common Carp as it rummaged through the substrate for small bits of food.  The bass would snatch up crayfish that darted away from the cover of stones disturbed by the foraging carp.
Sunfishes are among the species taking advantage of eelgrass beds for spawning.  They’ll build a nest scrape in the margins between clumps of plants allowing their young quick access to dense cover upon hatching.  The abundance of invertebrate life among the leaves of eelgrass nourishes feeding fishes, and in turn provides food for predators including Bald Eagles, this one carrying a freshly-caught Bluegill.

These improvements in water quality and wildlife habitat can have a ripple effect.  In 2020, the reduction in nutrient loads entering Chesapeake Bay from the low-flowing Susquehanna may have combined with better-than-average flows from some of the bay’s lesser-polluted smaller tributaries to yield a reduction in the size of the bay’s oxygen-deprived “dead zones”.  These dead zones typically occur in late summer when water temperatures are at their warmest, dissolved oxygen levels are at their lowest, and nutrient-fed algal blooms have peaked and died.  Algal blooms can self-enhance their severity by clouding water, which blocks sunlight from reaching submerged aquatic plants and stunts their growth—making quantities of unconsumed nutrients available to make more algae.  When a huge biomass of algae dies in a susceptible part of the bay, its decay can consume enough of the remaining dissolved oxygen to kill aquatic organisms and create a “dead zone”.  The Chesapeake Bay Program reports that the average size of this year’s dead zone was 1.0 cubic miles, just below the 35-year average of 1.2 cubic miles.

Back on a stormy day in mid-November, 2020, we took a look at the tidal freshwater section of Chesapeake Bay, the area known as Susquehanna Flats, located just to the southwest of the river’s mouth at Havre de Grace, Maryland.  We wanted to see how the restored American Eelgrass beds there might have fared during a growing season with below average loads of nutrients and life-choking sediments spilling out of the nearby Susquehanna River.  Here’s what we saw.

We followed the signs from Havre de Grace to Swan Harbor Farm Park.
Harford County Parks and Recreation’s Swan Harbor Farm Park consists of a recently-acquired farming estate overlooking the tidal freshwater of Susquehanna Flats.
Along the bay shore, a gazebo and a fishing pier have been added.  Both provide excellent observation points.
The shoreline looked the way it should look on upper Chesapeake Bay, a vegetated buffer and piles of trees and other organic matter at the high-water line.  There was less man-made garbage than we might find following a summer that experienced an outflow from river flooding, but there was still more than we should be seeing.
Judging by the piles of fresh American Eelgrass on the beach, it looks like it’s been a good year.  Though considered a freshwater plant, eelgrass will tolerate some brackish water, which typically invades upper Chesapeake Bay each autumn due to a seasonal reduction in freshwater inflow from the Susquehanna and other tributaries.  Saltwater can creep still further north when the freshwater input falls below seasonal norms during years of severe drought.  The Susquehanna Flats portion of the upper bay very rarely experiences an invasion by brackish water; there was none in 2020.
As we scanned the area with binoculars and a spotting scope, a raft of over one thousand ducks and American Coots (foreground) could be seen bobbing among floating eelgrass leaves and clumps of the plants that had broken away from their mooring in the mud.  Waterfowl feed on eelgrass leaves and on the isopods and other invertebrates that make this plant community their home.
While coots and grebes seemed to favor the shallower water near shore, a wide variety of both diving and dabbling ducks were widespread in the eelgrass beds more distant.  Discernable were Ring-necked Ducks, scaup, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Redheads, American Wigeons, Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, American Black Ducks, and Buffleheads.

We noticed a few Canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria) on the Susquehanna Flats during our visit.  Canvasbacks are renowned as benthic feeders, preferring the tubers and other parts of submerged aquatic plants (a.k.a. submersed aquatic vegetation or S.A.V.) including eelgrass, but also feeding on invertebrates including bivalves.  The association between Canvasbacks and eelgrass is reflected in the former’s scientific species name valisineria, a derivitive of the genus name of the latter, Vallisneria.

Canvasbacks on Chesapeake Bay.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service image by Ryan Hagerty)

The plight of the Canvasback and of American Eelgrass on the Susquehanna River was described by Herbert H. Beck in his account of the birds found in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, published in 1924:

“Like all ducks, however, it stops to feed within the county less frequently than formerly, principally because the vast beds of wild celery which existed earlier on broads of the Susquehanna, as at Marietta and Washington Borough, have now been almost entirely wiped out by sedimentation of culm (anthracite coal waste).  Prior to 1875 the four or five square miles of quiet water off Marietta were often as abundantly spread with wild fowl as the Susquehanna Flats are now.”

Beck quotes old Marietta resident and gunner Henry Zink:

“Sometimes there were as many as 500,000 ducks of various kinds on the Marietta broad at one time.”

The abundance of Canvasbacks and other ducks on the Susquehanna Flats would eventually plummet too.  In the 1950s, there were an estimated 250, 000 Canvasbacks wintering on Chesapeake Bay, primarily in the area of the American Eelgrass, a.k.a. Wild Celery, beds on the Susquehanna Flats.  When those eelgrass beds started disappearing during the second half of the twentieth century, the numbers of Canvasbacks wintering on the bay took a nosedive.  As a population, the birds moved elsewhere to feed on different sources of food, often in saltier estuarine waters.

Canvasbacks were able to eat other foods and change their winter range to adapt to the loss of habitat on the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.  But not all species are the omnivores that Canvasbacks happen to be, so they can’t just change their diet and/or fly away to a better place.  And every time a habitat like the American Eelgrass plant community is eliminated from a region, it fragments the range for each species that relied upon it for all or part of its life cycle.  Wildlife species get compacted into smaller and smaller suitable spaces and eventually their abundance and diversity are impacted.  We sometimes marvel at large concentrations of birds and other wildlife without seeing the whole picture—that man has compressed them into ever-shrinking pieces of habitat that are but a fraction of the widespread environs they once utilized for survival.  Then we sometimes harass and persecute them on the little pieces of refuge that remain.  It’s not very nice, is it?

By the end of 2020, things on the Susquehanna were getting back to normal.  Near normal rainfall over much of the watershed during the final three months of the year was supplemented by a mid-December snowstorm, then heavy downpours on Christmas Eve melted it all away.  Several days later, the Susquehanna River was bank full and dishing out some minor flooding for the first time since early May.  Isn’t it great to get back to normal?

The rain-and-snow-melt-swollen Susquehanna from Chickies Rock looking upriver toward Marietta during the high-water crest on December 27th.
Cresting at Columbia as seen from the Route 462/Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.  A Great Black-backed Gull monitors the waters for edibles.
All back to normal on the Susquehanna to end 2020.
Yep, back to normal on the Susquehanna.  Maybe 2021 will turn out to be another good year, or maybe it’ll  just be a Michelin or Firestone.

SOURCES

Beck, Herbert H.  1924.  A Chapter on the Ornithology of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The Lewis Historical Publishing Company.  New York, NY.

White, Christopher P.  1989.  Chesapeake Bay, Nature of the Estuary: A Field Guide.  Tidewater Publishers.  Centreville, MD.

Get Out of the Floodplain…And Get Your Stuff Out Too!

After threading its way through waves of Saharan dust plumes, Tropical Storm Isaias, or the remnants thereof, is making a run up the eastern seaboard toward the lower Susquehanna watershed.

Isaias formed just off the northernmost tip of the South American continent.  It drifted north in a narrow pocket between two waves of the Saharan dust plume and, on July 30, strengthened to tropical storm status while in the vicinity of Puerto Rico.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
In this image taken on Friday, note the position of the fast-moving dust plume that was to the southeast of Isaias just a day earlier.  With the storm now clear of the dry Saharan air, it strengthens to become Hurricane Isaias.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
On Friday, the National Hurricane Center issues advisors expecting the strengthening Isaias to sweep the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina as a hurricane with winds of 74 miles per hour or greater.  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)
Then on Saturday, Isaias appears to be back in the dirt.  Did the counterclockwise rotation of the atmosphere around Isaias draw in Saharan dust and dry air to weaken the storm?  Whatever the cause, Isaias is downgraded to a strong tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 miles per hour.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
The latest image of Tropical Storm Isaias.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
The latest forecast projects Isaias will briefly reach hurricane status later today before making landfall in South Carolina and again weakening.  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)
Tropical Storm Isaias is expected to bring heavy rain to the lower Susquehanna valley and the Cheapeake Bay region tomorrow (Tuesday).  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)

Heavy rain and flooding appears likely, particularly east of the Susquehanna.  Now might be a good time to clean up the trash and garbage that could clog nearby storm drains or otherwise find its way into your local waterway.  NOW is the time to get all your stuff out of the floodplain!  The car, the camper, the picnic table, the lawn furniture, the kid’s toys, the soda bottles, the gas cans, the lawn chemicals, the Styrofoam, and all that other junk you’ve piled up.  Get that stuff cleaned up and out of the floodway.  And of course, get you and your pets out of the there too!

Coronaphobes

It’s interesting to watch germophobes—and now coronaphobes—in action.

Some germophobes are very sanitary.  They’ve practiced aseptic measures for most of their lives and have learned how clean and disinfect themselves and their surroundings quite well.  Good for them.

Then there are those germophobes who are really bad at it.  They’ve had years and years of practice, but they still can’t get it right.  The public restroom is their absolute worst terror.  They’ll empty the soap and sanitizer bottles into the mounds of paper towels they’ve stripped from the dispensers on the wall.  Then they’ll wipe and scrub the privacy walls, flushable fixture, counter top, and sink they intend to use.  (They don’t seem to bother with cleaning the mirrors though; I guess they’re too busy.)  The puddles of dripped water leave a trail from the sink to their chosen stall of comfort.  Then more paper towels are hauled off to try to dry the sloppy mess they’ve made.  Then comes the clincher—not daring to get near a dirty trash can, they flush the giant wad of paper down the toilet and clog it.  In frustration, they flush again and again until finally, they flood the entire restroom with sewer water.  Then they panic and scurry away without ever finishing the business they started, if you know what I mean.  How does your editor know these things?  Well, for several years your friendly editor was a repairman in a series of very busy travel terminals, and it was he who got the call to undo the damage.  It was an absolute nightmare, and it happened almost every day.

Now that we’re under don’t-call-it-martial-law-martial-law and compliant types are wearing masks while they work or cure their uncontrollable cravings to shop, it’s getting difficult to separate the germophobes from all these coronaphobes and other mask newbies.

I suspect that the handful of people I see in public using a mask as it was designed and then disposing of it properly upon removal have had some sort of medical or laboratory experience sometime in their lives—or they’re one of the skilled master germophobes.   Good for them.

The real challenge comes when trying to separate the bumbling germophobe from the new recruits—the sloppy coronaphobes and the not-so-inspired mask-wearers who have been coerced into donning a rag so that they can work or get food.  They all share a set of common practices that make telling them apart impossible.  First, they’re fussing with the mask.  They’ve got their hands on it.  They’re pulling it up.  Then they’re pulling it down, moving it to their left, then to their right.  Crud on their hands gets on the mask, and the creepy crawlies from the mask get on their hands.  Mask to hands to everything they touch.  It’s almost the equivalent of having their hands in their mouth before pulling them out to grab the door handle, merchandise, or money.  Then there’s this common sight—they pull the mask down around their neck for a while, just to smear the stuff that’s inside the mask onto the outside surface, and vice versa.  It’s a microbiologists dream (or nightmare) by now.  Then they’ll walk around with the mask down over their mouth without it covering their nose, maybe for a half hour or so.  Breathing all over the outside before reaching up and pulling it over their nose again.  On and on this goes, sometimes for hours or maybe even the whole day.  Best of all though is the removal of the mask.  It doesn’t go into the trash.  Nope, might need it again sooner or later.  It’s on the desk, the papers, and the keyboard.  Then, it’s hanging over the chair for a while to dry off a little bit.  It’s on the dashboard, the car seat, or hanging around the rear view mirror.  Look, the dog’s playing with it.  Isn’t that cute.  Yeah, swell.  It might even end up in the grocery bag, but never ever in the trash.  And for the life of me, I can’t tell if I’m watching a really fouled-up germophobe or a new amateur in action.

The new sign of a slob in local parking lots.  Is it a coronaphobe or just a ticked-off shopper who is sick of being coerced into wearing these things?
It’s a pretty good bet that someone tossing a mask and a pair of gloves before darting away is a coronaphobe.

Let’s face it—the use of masks by the general public is a placebo.  They aren’t being used correctly and because of it, they offer minimal, if any, protection.  Despite rhetoric to the contrary, people wearing masks voluntarily wear them in an attempt to protect themselves, number one, numero uno.  These are the coronaphobes.  They want to coerce others into wearing masks so that they themselves might be protected.  The Republicrats, Democans, bureaucrats, and corporations running “Operation Boxer Shorts” (Objective: cover your @&&) have ignored  the advice of researchers on the matter to go along with this silliness—to protect and/or further their own enterprise no doubt.  The Centers for Disease Control say they reversed their own advice on masks-for-all not because there’s sound evidence that their effect outweighs their misuse, but because asymptomatic cases of Wuhan flu were discovered.  As Foster Brooks used to say, “cockypop!”  But okay, fine, so we’ll wear a mask, even though it’s more of a placebo than a prophylactic.  We’ll do it just to make you happy.  But could you at least pick up after yourself and wash your hands?  Oh, and put the masks and gloves in the trash, don’t flush em’ down the commode.  Thanks!

I keep wondering how all of this is gonna shake out in Sweden.  You know, Sweden, where they didn’t have a lock-down to eviscerate small business and labor while fighting the flu.  Yeah, Sweden, where they’re trying a defensive-offensive strategy—protect the most vulnerable (the defense) while allowing natural resistance to develop among enough members of the population to cripple transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the offense).  I’ve been very interested in that strategy.  I’ll be watching.

Just in case anybody feels the need, here, again, are the sources on mask wearing.

SOURCES THAT APPARENTLY NOBODY READS

Broseau, Lisa M., and Margaret Seitsema.  2020.  “Commentary: Masks-for-all for COVID-19 Not Based on Sound Data”.  University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Policy https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/04/commentary-masks-all-covid-19-not-based-sound-data  Accessed April 10, 2020.

Davies, Anna, Katy-Anne Thompson, Karthika Giri, George Kafatos, Jimmy Walker, and Alan Bennett.  2013.  “Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic?”.  Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.  7:4.  pp. 413-418.

MacIntyre, C. Raina, Holly Seale, Tham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tran Hien, Phan Thi Nga, Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, Bayzidur Rahman, Dominic E. Dwyer, and Quanyi Wang.  2015.  A Cluster Randomized Trial of Cloth Masks Compared with Medical Masks in Healthcare Workers.  BMJ Open.  5:e006577.  doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006577.

No Deposit/No Return

Late this afternoon, despite a cold bone-chilling rain, news media and crowds of onlookers gathered along the Susquehanna shoreline upstream of Three Mile Island at the small town of Royalton to catch a glimpse of the removal of a downed aircraft from the river.  Back on October 4, a single-engine Piper PA46 Malibu was on the final leg of an approach to runway 31 at Harrisburg International Airport when it lost power.  The pilot and passenger were uninjured during the emergency “splashdown” in the shallow water just short of the runway.

Recovery crews begin installing a set of slings around the downed plane’s fuselage.  It rests on York Haven Diabase bedrock in water about three feet deep.  Today’s heavy rains could raise the river level and float the plane into deeper water, so there is some urgency to complete its removal.
The Sikorsky S-61 recovery helicopter arrived just as the rain subsided.  Its hoist cables were quickly attached to the rigging that had been placed around the plane.
Slack in the hoist cable and harness assembly was taken up.
Then the aircraft was lifted slowly.
The flooded fuselage was allowed to drain before proceeding, greatly reducing the aircraft’s weight and the load on the helicopter and hardware.
The plane was transported to its original destination, Harrisburg International Airport, located just one mile away.  The timing of the recovery was impeccable.  Soon after its completion, a gusty wind swept down the river valley.  Colder air is expected to blow in throughout the remainder of the evening and through the morrow.  Meteorologists are calling the developing weather system a “bomb cyclone”.
Not everything that finds its way into the river generates as much effort to recover it.  It’s a case of no deposit/no return I suppose.

2018 Migration Count Summary: Rainout

If you were a regular visitor to this website during the autumn of 2017, you will recall the proliferation of posts detailing the bird migration at Conewago Falls during the season.  The lookout site among the Pothole Rocks remained high and dry for most of the count’s duration. 

In the fall of 2018, those lookout rocks were never to be seen. There was to be no safe perch for a would-be observer. There was no attempt to conduct a tally of passing migrants. If you live in the lower Susquehanna River drainage basin, you know why—rain—record setting rain.

Annual precipitation during 2018 as indicated by radar.  Note the extensive areas in pink.  They received in excess of 70 inches of precipitation during 2018, much of it during the second half of the year.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Average annual rainfall.  Most of the lower Susquehanna drainage basin receives an average of just over 40 inches of rain each year.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Departure from normal annual precipitation totals.  Note the extensive areas of greater than 20 inches of precipitation above normal (pink).  Severe flooding occurred on many streams during numerous events throughout the second half of 2018.  Note the closer to normal totals in central New York in the upper Susquehanna watershed.  The lesser amounts of rain there and the localized pattern of the flooding events in Pennsylvania prevented the main stem of the lower Susquehanna from experiencing catastrophic high water in 2018.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)   
Though there has been no severe flooding, frequent rain events in the Susquehanna watershed have maintained persistently high river levels in Conewago Falls.  Pothole Rocks seen here on December 9 during an ebb in the flow were soon inundated again as rains fell in the Susquehanna basin upstream. 
Of course, each time the river receded it left behind a fresh pile of plastic garbage.  What didn’t end up on the shoreline found its way to Chesapeake Bay…then on to the Atlantic.  Is that your cooler? 

Put Up the White Flag

It was a routine occurrence in many communities along tributaries of the lower Susquehanna River during the most recent two months.  The rain falls like it’s never going to stop—inches an hour.  Soon there is flash flooding along creeks and streams.  Roads are quickly inundated.  Inevitably, there are motorists caught in the rising waters and emergency crews are summoned to retrieve the victims.  When the action settles, sets of saw horses are brought to the scene to barricade the road until waters recede.  At certain flood-prone locations, these events are repeated time and again.  The police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services crews seem to visit them during every torrential storm—rain, rescue, rinse, and repeat.

We treat our local streams and creeks like open sewers.  Think about it.  We don’t want rainwater accumulating on our properties.  We pipe it away and grade the field, lawn, and pavement to roll it into the neighbor’s lot or into the street—or directly into the waterway.  It drops upon us as pure water and we instantly pollute it.  It’s a method of diluting all the junk we’ve spread out in its path since the last time it rained.  A thunderstorm is the big flush.  We don’t seem too concerned about the litter, fertilizer, pesticides, motor fluids, and other consumer waste it takes along with it.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Failure to retain and infiltrate stormwater to recharge aquifers can later result in well failures and reduced base flow in streams.  (Conoy Creek’s dry streambed in June, 2007)

Perhaps our lack of respect for streams and creeks is the source of our complete ignorance of the function of floodplains.

Floodplains are formed over time as hydraulic forces erode bedrock and soils surrounding a stream to create adequate space to pass flood waters.  As floodplains mature they become large enough to reduce flood water velocity and erosion energy.  They then function to retain, infiltrate, and evaporate the surplus water from flood events.  Microorganisms, plants, and other life forms found in floodplain wetlands, forests, and grasslands purify the water and break down naturally-occurring organic matter.  Floodplains are the shock-absorber between us and our waterways.  And they’re our largest water treatment facilities.

Why is it then, that whenever a floodplain floods, we seem motivated to do something to fix this error of nature?  Man can’t help himself.  He has a compulsion to fill the floodplain with any contrivance he can come up with.  We dump, pile, fill, pave, pour, form, and build, then build some more.  At some point, someone notices a stream in the midst of our new creation.  Now it’s polluted and whenever it storms, the darn thing floods into our stuff—worse than ever before.  So the project is crowned by another round of dumping, forming, pouring, and building to channelize the stream.  Done!  Now let’s move all our stuff into our new habitable space.

Natural Floodplain- Over a period of hundreds or thousands of years, the stream (dark blue) has established a natural floodplain including wetlands and forest.  In this example, buildings and infrastructure are located outside the zone inundated by high water (light blue) allowing the floodplain to function as an effective water-absorbing buffer.

Impaired Floodplain- Here the natural floodplain has been filled for building (left) and paved for recreation area parking (right).  The stream has been channelized.  Flood water (light blue) displaced by these alterations is likely to inundate areas not previously impacted by similar events.  Additionally, the interference with natural flow will create new erosion points that could seriously damage older infrastructure and properties.

The majority of the towns in the lower Susquehanna valley with streams passing through them have impaired floodplains.  In many, the older sections of the town are built on filled floodplain.  Some new subdivisions highlight streamside lawns as a sales feature—plenty of room for stockpiling your accoutrements of suburban life.  And yes, some new homes are still being built in floodplains.

When high water comes, it drags tons of debris with it.  The limbs, leaves, twigs, and trees are broken down by natural processes over time.  Nature has mechanisms to quickly cope with these organics.  Man’s consumer rubbish is another matter.  As the plant material decays, the embedded man-made items, particularly metals, treated lumber, plastics, Styrofoam, and glass, become more evident as an ever-accumulating “garbage soil” in the natural floodplains downstream of these impaired areas.  With each storm, some of this mess floats away again to move ever closer to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic.  Are you following me?  That’s our junk from the curb, lawn, highway, or parking lot bobbing around in the world’s oceans.

A shed, mobile home, or house can be inundated or swept away during a flood.  Everything inside (household chemicals, gasoline, fuel oil, pesticides, insulation, all those plastics, etc.) instantly pollutes the water.  Many communities that rely on the Susquehanna River for drinking water are immediately impacted, including Lancaster, PA and Baltimore, MD.  This dumpster was swept away from a parking lot in a floodplain.  It rolled in the current, chipping away at the bridge before spilling the rubbish into the muddy water.  After the flood receded, the dumpster was found a mile downstream.  Its contents are still out there somewhere.

Floodplains along the lower Susquehanna River are blanketed with a layer of flotsam that settles in place as high water recedes.  These fresh piles can be several feet deep and stretch for miles.  Nature decomposes the organic twigs and driftwood to build soil-enriching humus.  However, the plastics and other man-made materials that do not readily decay or do not float away toward the sea during the next flood are incorporated into the alluvium and humus creating a “garbage soil”.  Over time, the action of abrasives in the soil will grind small particles of plastics from the larger pieces.  These tiny plastics can become suspended in the water column each time the river floods.  What will be the long-term impact of this type of pollution?

Anything can be swept away by the powerful hydraulic forces of flowing water.  Large objects like this utility trailer can block passages through bridges and escalate flooding problems.

The cost of removing debris often falls upon local government and is shared by taxpayers.

Here, a junked boat dock is snagged on the crest of the York Haven Dam at Conewago Falls.  Rising water eventually carried it over the dam and into the falls where it broke up.  This and tons of other junk are often removed downstream at the Safe Harbor Dam to prevent damage to turbine equipment.  During periods of high water, the utility hauls debris by the truck-load to the local waste authority for disposal.  For the owners of garbage like this dock, it’s gone and it’s somebody else’s problem now.

Motor vehicles found after floating away from parking areas in floodplains can create a dangerous dilemma for police, fire, and E.M.S. personnel, particularly when no one witnesses the event.  Was someone driving this car or was it vacant when it was swept downstream?  Should crews be put at risk to locate possible victims?

Beginning in 1968, participating municipalities, in exchange for having coverage provided to their qualified residents under the National Flood Insurance Program, were required to adopt and enforce a floodplain management ordinance.  The program was intended to reduce flood damage and provide flood assistance funded with premiums paid by potential victims.  The program now operates with a debt incurred during severe hurricanes.  Occurrences of repetitive damage claims and accusations that the program provides an incentive for rebuilding in floodplains have made the National Flood Insurance Program controversial.

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed there are municipalities that still permit new construction in floodplains.  Others are quite proactive at eliminating new construction in flood-prone zones, and some are working to have buildings removed that are subjected to repeated flooding.

Another Wall— Here’s an example of greed by the owner, engineer, and municipality… placing their financial interests first.  The entire floodplain on the north side of this stream was filled, then the wall was erected to contain the material.  A financial institution’s office and parking lot was constructed atop the mound.  This project has channelized the stream and completely displaced half of the floodplain to a height of 15 to 20 feet.  Constructed less than five years ago, the wall failed already and has just been totally reconstructed.  The photo reveals how recent flooding has begun a new erosion regime where energy is focused along the base of the wall.  Impairment of a floodplain to this degree can lead to flooding upstream of the site and erosion damage to neighboring infrastructure including roads and bridges.

The floodplain along this segment of the lower Swatara Creek in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County is free to flood.  Ordinances prohibit new construction here and 14 older houses that repeatedly flooded were purchased, dismantled, and removed using funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A).  A riparian buffer was planted and some wetland restorations were incorporated into stormwater management installations along the local highways.  When the waters of the Swatara rise, the local municipality closes the roads into the floodplain.  Nobody lives or works there anymore, so no one has any reason to enter.  There’s no need to rescue stubborn residents who refused advice to evacuate.  Sightseers can park and stand on the hill behind the barricades and take all the photographs they like.

A new Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge across Swatara Creek features wide passage for the stream below.  Water flowing in the floodplain can pass under the bridge without being channelized toward the path where the stream normally flows in the center.  The black asterisk-shaped floats spin on the poles to help deflect debris away from the bridge piers.  (flood crest on July 26, 2018)

People are curious when a waterway floods and they want to see it for themselves.  Wouldn’t it be wise to anticipate this demand for access by being ready to accommodate these citizens safely?  Isn’t a parking lot, picnic area, or manicured park safer and more usable when overlooking the floodplain as opposed to being located in it?  Wouldn’t it be a more prudent long-term investment, both financially and ecologically, to develop these improvements on higher ground outside of flood zones?

Now would be a good time to stop the new construction and the rebuilding in floodplains.  Aren’t the risks posed to human life, water quality, essential infrastructure, private property, and ecosystems too great to continue?

Isn’t it time to put up the white flag and surrender the floodplains to the floods?  That’s why they’re there.  Floodplains are for flooding.