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.

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.

Friendly Neighborhood Spider, Man

Within the last few years, the early-summer emergence of vast waves of mayflies has caused great consternation among residents of riverside towns and motorists who cross the bridges over the lower Susquehanna.  Fishermen and others who frequent the river are familiar with the phenomenon.  Mayflies rise from their benthic environs where they live for a year or more as an aquatic larval stage (nymph) to take flight as a short-lived adult (imago), having just one night to complete the business of mating before perishing by the following afternoon.

In 2015, an emergence on a massive scale prompted the temporary closure of the mile-long Columbia-Wrightsville bridge while a blizzard-like flight of huge mayflies reduced visibility and caused road conditions to deteriorate to the point of causing accidents.  The slimy smelly bodies of dead mayflies, probably millions of them, were removed like snow from the normally busy Lincoln Highway.  Since then, to prevent attraction of the breeding insects, lights on the bridge have been shut down from about mid-June through mid-July to cover the ten to fourteen day peak of the flight period of Hexagenia bilineata, sometimes known as the Great Brown Drake, the species that swarms the bridge.

An adult (imago) male Great Brown Drake (Hexagenia bilineata) burrowing mayfly.  Adult mayflies are also known as spinners.
A sub-adult (based on the translucence of the wings) female burrowing mayfly (Hexagenia species).  The sub-adult (subimago or dun) stage lasts less than a day.  Normally within 18 hours of leaving the water and beginning flight, it will molt into an adult, ready to breed during its final night of life.

After so many years, why did the swarms of these mayflies suddenly produce the enormous concentrations seen on this particular bridge across the lower Susquehanna?  Let’s have a look.

Following the 2015 flight, conservation organizations were quick to point out that the enormous numbers of mayflies were a positive thing—an indicator that the waters of the river were getting cleaner.  Generally, assessments of aquatic invertebrate populations are considered to be among the more reliable gauges of stream health.  But some caution is in order in this case.

Prior to the occurrence of large flights several years ago, Hexagenia bilineata was not well known among the species in the mayfly communities of the lower Susquehanna and its tributaries.  The native range of the species includes the southeastern United States and the Mississippi River watershed.  Along segments of the Mississippi, swarms such as occurred at Columbia-Wrightsville in 2015 are an annual event, sometimes showing up on local weather radar images.  These flights have been determined to be heaviest along sections of the river with muddy bottoms—the favored habitat of the burrowing Hexagenia bilineata nymph.  This preferred substrate can be found widely in the Susquehanna due to siltation, particularly behind dams, and is the exclusive bottom habitat in Lake Clarke just downstream of the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge.

Native mayflies in the Susquehanna and its tributaries generally favor clean water in cobble-bottomed streams.  Hexagenia bilineata, on the other hand, appears to have colonized the river (presumably by air) and has found a niche in segments with accumulated silt, the benthic habitats too impaired to support the native taxa formerly found there.  Large flights of burrowing mayflies do indicate that the substrate didn’t become severely polluted or eutrophic during the preceding year.  And big flights tell us that the Susquehanna ecosystem is, at least in areas with silt bottoms, favorable for colonization by the Great Brown Drake.  But large flights of Hexagenia bilineata mayflies don’t necessarily give us an indication of how well the Susquehanna ecosystem is supporting indigenous mayflies and other species of native aquatic life.  Only sustained recoveries by populations of the actual native species can tell us that.  So, it’s probably prudent to hold off on the celebrations.  We’re a long way from cleaning up this river.

In the absence of man-made lighting, male Great Brown Drakes congregate over waterways lit often by moonlight alone.  The males hover in position within a swarm, often downwind of an object in the water.  As females begin flight and pass through the swarm, they are pursued by the males in the vicinity.  The male response is apparently sight motivated—anything moving through their field of view in a straight line will trigger a pursuit.  That’s why they’re so pesky, landing on your face whenever you approach them.  Mating takes place as males rendezvous with airborne females.  The female then drops to the water surface to deposit eggs and later die—if not eaten by a fish first.  Males return to the swarm and may mate again and again.  They die by the following afternoon.  After hatching, the larvae (nymphs) burrow in the silt where they’ll grow for the coming year.  Feathery gills allow them to absorb oxygen from water passing through the U-shaped refuge they’ve excavated.

Several factors increase the likelihood of large swarms of Great Brown Drakes at bridges.  Location is, of course, a primary factor.  Bridges spanning suitable habitat will, as a minimum, experience incidental occurrences of the flying forms of the mayflies that live in the waters below.  Any extraordinarily large emergence will certainly envelop the bridge in mayflies.  Lights, both fixed and those on motor vehicles, enhance the appearance of movement on a bridge deck, thus attracting hovering swarms of male Hexagenia bilineata and other species from a greater distance, leading to larger concentrations.  Concrete walls along the road atop the bridge lure the males to try to hover in a position of refuge behind them, despite the vehicles that disturb the still air each time they pass.  The walls also function as the ultimate visual attraction as headlamp beams and shadows cast by moving vehicles are projected onto them over the length of the bridge.  Vast numbers of dead, dying, and maimed mayflies tend to accumulate along these walls for this reason.

The absence of illumination from fixed lighting on the deck of the bridge reduces the density of Great Brown Drake swarms.  Some communities take mayfly countermeasures one step further.  Along the Mississippi, some bridges are fitted with lights on the underside of the deck to attract the mayflies to the area directly over the water, concentrating the breeding mayflies and fishermen alike.  The illumination below the bridge is intended to draw mayflies away from light created by headlamps on motor vehicles passing by on the otherwise dark deck above.  Lights beneath the bridge also help prevent large numbers of mayflies from being drawn away from the water toward lights around businesses and homes in neighborhoods along the shoreline—where they can become a nuisance.

Lights out on the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge.  Dousing the lights to eliminate fixed illumination on bridges is an effective method of reducing the density of Hexagenia bilineata swarms.
With the bridge lights darkened, male Great Brown Drakes, their cellophane-like wings illuminated by headlamps to appear as white spots on the road, number in the hundreds instead of hundreds of thousands in swarms on the bridge near the east and west shorelines.
Swarms of Great Brown Drake mayflies are still present at the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge, they’re just not concentrated there in enormous numbers.  Evidence includes their bodies found in cobwebs along the entire length of the span.
The aptly-named Bridge Orb Weaver (Larinioides sclopetarius) constructs webs along the entire length of the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge, and on many of the buildings at both ends.  The abundance of victims tangled in silk must overwhelm their appetite, or maybe they actually consume only the smaller insects.  They have their choice.  Of the Bridge Orb Weaver, Uncle Ty Dyer says, “When you live along the river, it’s your friendly neighborhood spider, man.”
The native Eastern Dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus) is among the reliable indicators of stream quality in the Susquehanna at the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge.  Winged adults, which live for about a week, are clumsy fliers attracted to lights.  The aquatic larvae are known as hellgrammites, which require clean flowing water over rocky or pebbly substrate to thrive.  Two adults were found on the bridge last evening.  It would be encouraging to find more.  Maybe we’ll stop back to have another look when the lights are back on.

SOURCES

Edsall, Thomas A.  2001.  “Burrowing Mayflies (Hexagenia) as Indicators of Ecosystem Health.”  Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management.  43:283-292.

Fremling, Calvin R.  1960.  Biology of a Large Mayfly, Hexagenia bilineata (Say), of the Upper Mississippi River.   Research Bulletin 482.  Agricultural and Home Economics Experiment Station, Iowa State University.  Ames, Iowa.

McCafferty, W. P.  1994.  “Distributional and Classificatory Supplement to the Burrowing Mayflies (Ephemeroptera: Ephimeroidea) of the United States.”  Entomological News.  105:1-13.