The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued a “drought watch” for much of the state’s Susquehanna basin including Dauphin, Lebanon, and Perry Counties—plus those counties to their north. Residents are asked to conserve water in the affected areas.
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.
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.
It’s that time of year when one may expect to find migratory Neotropical songbirds feeding among the foliage of trees and shrubs in the forests, woodlots, and thickets of the lower Susquehanna valley.
During a late afternoon stroll through a headwaters forest east of Conewago Falls outside Mount Gretna, I was pleased to finally come upon a noisy gathering of about two dozen birds. It had, previous to that, been a quiet two hours of walking, only the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm punctuated the silence. Among this little flock were some chickadees, robins, Gray Catbirds, an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), and a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus). Besides the catbirds, there were two other species of Neotropical migrants; both were warblers. No less than six Black-throated Blue Warblers (Setophaga caerulescens) were vying for positions in the trees from which they could investigate the stranger on the footpath below. And among the understory shrubs there were at least as many Ovenbirds (Seiurus aurocapilla) satisfying a similar curiosity.
When they depart the Susquehanna valley, these two warbler species will be southbound for wintering ranges that include Florida, many of the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and, for the Ovenbirds, northern South America. Their flights occur at night. During the breeding season and while migrating, both feed primarily on insects and other arthropods . On the wintering grounds, they will consume some fruit. It is during their time in the tropics that the Black-throated Blue Warbler sometimes visits feeding stations that offer grape jelly, much to the delight of bird enthusiasts.
Black-throated Blue Warblers and Ovenbirds commonly winter on the Florida peninsula and in the Bahamas. With the major tropical cyclone Hurricane Dorian presently ripping through the region, these birds are better off taking their time getting there. There’s no need to hurry. The longer they and the other Neotropical migrants hang around, the more we get to enjoy them anyway. So get out there to see them before they go—and remember to look up.
There are two Conewago Creek systems in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. One drains the Gettysburg Basin west of the river, mostly in Adams and York Counties, then flows into the Susquehanna at the base of Conewago Falls. The other drains the Gettysburg Basin east of the river, flowing through Triassic redbeds of the Gettysburg Formation and York Haven Diabase before entering Conewago Falls near the south tip of Three Mile Island. Both Conewago Creeks flow through suburbia, farm, and forest. Both have their capacity to support aquatic life impaired and diminished by nutrient and sediment pollution.
This week, some of the many partners engaged in a long-term collaboration to restore the east shore’s Conewago Creek met to have a look at one of the prime indicators of overall stream habitat health—the fishes. Kristen Kyler of the Lower Susquehanna Initiative organized the effort. Portable backpack-mounted electrofishing units and nets were used by crews to capture, identify, and count the native and non-native fishes at sampling locations which have remained constant since prior to the numerous stream improvement projects which began more than ten years ago. Some of the present-day sample sites were first used following Hurricane Agnes in 1972 by Stambaugh and Denoncourt and pre-date any implementation of sediment and nutrient mitigation practices like cover crops, no-till farming, field terracing, stormwater control, nutrient management, wetland restoration, streambank fencing, renewed forested stream buffers, or modernized wastewater treatment plants. By comparing more recent surveys with this baseline data, it may be possible to discern trends in fish populations resulting not only from conservation practices, but from many other variables which may impact the Conewago Creek Warmwater Stream ecosystem in Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties.
So here they are. Enjoy these shocking fish photos.
Normandeau Associates, Inc. and Gomez and Sullivan. 2018. Muddy Run Pumped Storage Project Conowingo Eel Collection Facility FERC Project 2355. Prepared for Exelon.
Stambaugh, Jr., John W., and Robert P. Denoncourt. 1974. A Preliminary Report on the Conewago Creek Faunal Survey, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences. 48: 55-60.