Down the River: Finding Balance in the Susquehanna

Snow begins to melt high in the wooded Appalachian hills, and the sharp, verdant smell of spring trails the trickling meltwater down through valleys and across marshes to the 444 miles of river and stream that compose the Susquehanna River.

From its headwaters in New York’s Otsego Lake, to Havre de Grace, Maryland where the Susquehanna feeds the ecological factory that is the Chesapeake Bay, the river is in a constant state of flux. 

Going with the Flow

Seasonal pulses of water trigger eels to depart on their migration around the world or clean a gravel bed for brook trout spawning, while lower, more stable water flows incubate fish eggs and hatchlings and provide prime feeding habitats for wading birds. 

From a tiny mussel to a towering maple, each species living in or along the river evolved to take advantage of a particular niche, so retaining just a minimum amount of water throughout the year doesn’t protect the complexity of the system, explains freshwater scientist Tara Moberg, who recently co-authored an analysis of the Susquehanna’s flow that the Conservancy has shared with policymakers to help direct future use of the river.

“It’s the balance and the rhythm of these patterns that perpetuates the diversity of the ecosystem,” Moberg says.

More than four million people live within the Susquehanna’s watershed, drinking its water and powering their homes with the energy from its strong flow. 

Managing Water Withdrawals and Releases

In the West Branch watershed, an energy boom is creating new challenges. Conservancy research suggests tens of thousands of Marcellus natural gas wells could be drilled in the coming decades—with each well using four to seven million gallons of water. It’s a great example of how better science can lead to better management. When and where the water is taken can make a big difference. If water is taken from small headwater streams, especially during the dry summer and fall months, the impact could be dramatic. 

The Conservancy’s detailed analysis of where and when particular species need water is being used by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to review requests for large water withdrawals, be they for natural gas wells or golf courses or agricultural fields.

Each drop of water that passes through the Susquehanna basin on its way to the Chesapeake Bay has an important role to play—but until now, policymakers and water managers have not had the information they need to protect these roles as they manage for water withdrawals and releases. By providing them with sound science, the Conservancy helps to ensure that eel, trout, turtles, birds and people will benefit from the river’s life-sustaining flow.


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