With the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s biggest holiday of the year now upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the noise and the enduring adolescence for just a little while to see something spectacular that isn’t exploding or on fire? Well, here’s a suggestion: head for the hills to check out the flowers of our native rhododendron, the Great Rhododendron (Rhododendronmaximum), also known as Rosebay.
Thickets composed of our native heathers/heaths (Ericaceae) including Great Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Pinxter Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides), particularly when growing in association with Eastern Hemlock and/or Eastern White Pine, provide critical winter shelter for forest wildlife. The flowers of native heathers/heaths attract bees and other pollinating insects and those of the deciduous Pinxter Flower, which blooms in May, are a favorite of butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
Forests with understories that include Great Rhododendrons do not respond well to logging. Although many Great Rhododendrons regenerate after cutting, the loss of consistent moisture levels in the soil due to the absence of a forest canopy during the sunny summertime can, over time, decimate an entire population of plants. In addition, few rhododendrons are produced by seed, even under optimal conditions. Great Rhododendron seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to the physical composition of forest substrate and its moisture content during both germination and growth. A lack of humus, the damp organic matter in soil, nullifies the chances of successful recolonization of a rhododendron understory by seed. In locations where moisture levels are adequate for their survival and regeneration after logging, impenetrable Great Rhododendron thickets will sometimes come to dominate a site. These monocultures can, at least in the short term, cause problems for foresters by interrupting the cycle of succession and excluding the reestablishment of native trees. In the case of forests harboring stands of Great Rhododendron, it can take a long time for a balanced ecological state to return following a disturbance as significant as logging.
In the lower Susquehanna region, the Great Rhododendron blooms from late June through the middle of July, much later than the ornamental rhododendrons and azaleas found in our gardens. Set against a backdrop of deep green foliage, the enormous clusters of white flowers are hard to miss.
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, there are but a few remaining stands of Great Rhododendron. One of the most extensive populations is in the Ridge and Valley Province on the north side of Second Mountain along Swatara Creek near Ravine (just off Interstate 81) in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Smaller groves are found in the Piedmont Province in the resort town of Mount Gretna in Lebanon County and in stream ravines along the lower river gorge at the Lancaster Conservancy’s Ferncliff and Wissler’s Run Preserves. Go have a look. You’ll be glad you did.
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.
Second Mountain Hawk Watch is located on a ridge top along the northern edge of the Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation and the southern edge of State Game Lands 211 in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. The valley on the north side of the ridge, also known as St. Anthony’s Wilderness, is drained to the Susquehanna by Stony Creek. The valley to the south is drained toward the river by Indiantown Run, a tributary of Swatara Creek.
The hawk watch is able to operate at this prime location for observing the autumn migration of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and bats through the courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Garrison Commander at Fort Indiantown Gap. The Second Mountain Hawk Watch Association is a non-profit organization that staffs the count site daily throughout the season and reports data to the North American Hawk Watch Association (posted daily at hawkcount.org).
Today, Second Mountain Hawk Watch was populated by observers who enjoyed today’s break in the rainy weather with a visit to the lookout to see what birds might be on the move. All were anxiously awaiting a big flight of Broad-winged Hawks, a forest-dwelling Neotropical species that often travels back to its wintering grounds in groups exceeding one hundred birds. Each autumn, many inland hawk watches in the northeast experience at least one day in mid-September with a Broad-winged Hawk count exceeding 1,000 birds. They are an early-season migrant and today’s southeast winds ahead of the remnants of Hurricane Florence (currently in the Carolinas) could push southwest-heading “Broad-wings” out of the Piedmont Province and into the Ridge and Valley Province for a pass by the Second Mountain lookout.
The flight turned out to be steady through the day with over three hundred Broad-winged Hawks sighted. The largest group consisted of several dozen birds. We would hope there are probably many more yet to come after the Florence rains pass through the northeast and out to sea by mid-week. Also seen today were Bald Eagles, Ospreys, American Kestrels, and a migrating Red-headed Woodpecker.
Migrating insects included Monarch butterflies, and the three commonest species of migratory dragonflies: Wandering Glider, Black Saddlebags, and Common Green Darner. The Common Green Darners swarmed the lookout by the dozens late in the afternoon and attracted a couple of American Kestrels, which had apparently set down from a day of migration. American Kestrels and Broad-winged Hawks feed upon dragonflies and often migrate in tandem with them for at least a portion of their journey.
Still later, as the last of the Broad-winged Hawks descended from great heights and began passing by just above the trees looking for a place to settle down, a most unwelcome visitor arrived at the lookout. It glided in from the St. Anthony’s Wilderness side of the ridge on showy crimson-red wings, then became nearly indiscernible from gray tree bark when it landed on a limb. It was the dreaded and potentially invasive Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula). This large leafhopper is native to Asia and was first discovered in North America in the Oley Valley of eastern Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014. The larval stage is exceptionally damaging to cultivated grape and orchard crops. It poses a threat to forest trees as well. Despite efforts to contain the species through quarantine and other methods, it’s obviously spreading quickly. Here on the Second Mountain lookout, we know that wind has a huge influence on the movement of birds and insects. The east and southeast winds we’ve experienced for nearly a week may be carrying Spotted Lanternflies well out of their most recent range and into the forests of the Ridge and Valley Province. We do know for certain that the Spotted Lanternfly has found its way into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two days ago, widespread rain fell intermittently through the day and steadily into the night in the Susquehanna drainage basin. The temperature was sixty degrees, climbing out of a three-week-long spell of sub-freezing cold in a dramatic way. Above the ice-covered river, a very localized fog swirled in the southerly breezes.
By yesterday, the rain had ended as light snow and a stiff wind from the northwest brought sub-freezing air back to the region. Though less than an inch of rain fell during this event, much of it drained to waterways from frozen or saturated ground. Streams throughout the watershed are being pushed clear of ice as minor flooding lifts and breaks the solid sheets into floating chunks.
Today, as their high flows recede, the smaller creeks and runs are beginning to freeze once again. On larger streams, ice is still exiting with the cresting flows and entering the rising river.
The events of today provide a superb snapshot of how Conewago Falls, particularly the Diabase Pothole Rocks, became such a unique place, thousands of years in the making. Ice and flood events of varying intensity, duration, and composition have sculpted these geomorphologic features and contributed to the creation of the specialized plant and animal communities we find there. Their periodic occurrence is essential to maintaining the uncommon habitats in which these communities thrive.