Watershed History

We focus on the history of our watershed because understanding today’s issues requires knowing where we’ve been. Even prior to the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier that covered the Upper Susquehanna, until around 10,000 B.C., the Susquehanna Valley was inhabited by man. Nomadic foragers, hunters and gatherers traveled up and down the Susquehanna, by canoe and by trail. Semi-permanent settlements began to appear along the waterways around 1200 B.C. At the time of the European arrival, the Susquehanna was peopled mostly by the Susquehannock and Seneca tribes.

Although there are rumors of Spanish pirates looking for gold in the Susquehanna during the 16th century, the first European known to have entered the southernmost regions of the Susquehanna was Captain John Smith in 1608. Shortly thereafter, in 1614, Dutch traders reached the Susquehanna, and by 1615 the Frenchman Etienne Brule had traveled the length of the Susquehanna from New York to the Chesapeake Bay. From this time until about 1720 the Susquehanna was known for trading with Native Americans and as a barrier to settlement in the west.

By the 1730’s tributaries of the Susquehanna were being used as sources of water and power for tanneries, grain mills, and gunpowder mills. Pollution from tanneries and the clearing of land were some of the first sources of man-made pollution in the Susquehanna. By the end of the 18th century iron furnaces, lumber operations, and farmers were tapping into the natural resources of the Lower Susquehanna Watershed. To transport these commodities numerous canals were initiated to make the otherwise un-navigable river into a transportation system.

The 19th century brought the industrial revolution to the Susquehanna Valley. Coal mining, land clearing, paper mills, slaughterhouses, and domestic waste made the waters unusable for domestic uses. Many epidemics broke out from use of this polluted waterbody.

By the 20th century, man seems to have given up on the waterways, and most became waste disposal systems for metals, coal tar, VOC’s, railroad refuse, human refuse, and many other pollutants. Flooding in the late 19th and early 20th century brought the US Army Corps of Engineers in to protect communities by replacing natural channels with large, unnatural channels and levies that we have since learned degrade the water quality even further. During this period some concerned citizens emerged and tried to take action, but to little avail.

The 20th century also brought the giant dams, coal-burning power plants, nuclear plants, and incinerators to the Lower Susquehanna Valley, creating barriers to fish migration, heating the temperature of the river, changing the aesthetics, and reducing the quality of this ancient river.

Awareness in the 1960’s and 1970’s brought numerous watershed groups into existence. Most of these had limited success in raising public consciousness, and by the 1980’s many waterways were severely impaired and the fate of the Chesapeake Bay was unknown. This brought into existence larger conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Their work has been tremendous, and water quality has not worsened much since then, but it has not gotten better either.

The millennial decades brought new impacts such as:

  • over-development and poor land use planning,
  • rise of the industrial factory farm,
  • the production of vast quantities of byproduct industrial wastes, and
  • simultaneous efforts to use such contaminated materials as ‘benefical reuse’ fill and effluent.

Science continually teaches us more about how to minimize our impacts on the intricately balanced relationships within and around our waterways. Our status quo continues to threaten clean water the work that has been done to improve and protect the waterways of the Lower Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay. There are solutions out there, but it will take focus and commitment to assure proper stewardship of our home.