Is there something in the water? Environmental report details ‘impairments’ of Bushkill Creek

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Dams along the Bushkill could be a cause of the silt build-up in the Creek. (Photo by Deanna Hanchuk ’22 for The Lafayette)

Nathan Kornfeind, News Editor

Despite a recent report from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection claiming that much of Northampton County’s stream water is “impaired,” Easton’s Bushkill Creek has been relatively spared.

The Jan. 18 report, which analyzed Pennsylvania’s streams, lakes and rivers, stated that 48.5 percent of Northampton County’s stream water is contaminated to the point of affecting its designated use. The report measured the quality of streams according to four criteria: aquatic life, fish consumption, recreational use and drinking water. 

“The Conservancy is concerned about the new impairments to the stream. We are waiting to hear more from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission before jumping to any conclusions about what is going on with the water. I think that one of the worst things that we can do as a conservation community is overact with alarmist statements before we have all the facts,” President of the Bushkill Stream Conservancy Kathy Altmann wrote in an email. 

According to the report, mercury has contaminated the Bushkill to the point that fish caught from it are unsafe to eat. When the Bushkill Creek Watershed was last assessed in 2016, it met the safety standards for fish consumption, according to The Morning Call. The source of the mercury can likely be attributed to coal-powered industries in the region. 

“It wouldn’t surprise me that there could be a reasonable measurable of mercury concentrations in the stream because the stream is located downwind of a fair number of old coal-fired power plants and cement kilns. And whenever you burn coal, mercury is going to be released into the atmosphere, and mercury can stay in the atmosphere for great distances before it settles,” Geology Professor Dru Germanoski explained. 

He noted limitations in the state report, however, as it didn’t specify the number or size of fish analyzed, as well as whether they came from a hatchery or from the wild, all of which could impact the amount of mercury in their tissue.  

The conservatory is considering its options to address the issue.

“We are in contact with many sources trying to find out more details relating to the mercury issue and the exact testing locations so we can try to formulate a plan of action,” Altmann wrote. 

The build-up of silt along the creek floor is another problem facing the creek. Altmann attributes it to the impairment of aquatic life like macroinvertebrates in the Bushkill. 

“This has been an ongoing concern that we have been trying to address with our municipal partners,” Altmann said. 

Germanoski attributed the build of silt in the Bushkill to the numerous dams along the creek. By slowing down the flow of water and flattening the slope of the creek, the dams facilitate the collection of silk and mud along the floor.  

“We and our students who’ve been working on that creek for years could feel it with your feet immediately when you get up in the pools above the dams. Right at the tip of the dams you’re typically walking on gravel, but as you move further into the pool, you’re starting to sink into muck and mud,” Germanoski said. 

He added that he and other Lafayette professors have been leading an effort to remove the dams, though financial and logistical obstacles have delayed the project. 

Directly related to the formation of silt is the erosion caused by excessive run-off. Altman wrote that as a result of excessive agricultural and urban development, storm runoff easily gets into the creek, often bringing with it other pollutants like litter or salt put down during the winter. 

A solution to this problem could be the formation of riparian buffers or vegetation next to the creek that can filter run-off and provide shade to the stream to regulate the water temperature. 

“Ideally, I would like to see stricter regulations regarding riparian buffers. My wish list also includes Environmental Advocacy Committees in each municipality and governing bodies that actually pay attention to the environment,” Altmann wrote

Despite the report, Altmann and Germanoski emphasized that the well-being of the Bushkill should not be understated. Germanoski noted that a wild trout population sustains itself in the creek, a good indicator of its health. 

“The Bushkill Creek is, compared to many streams in Pennsylvania, in remarkably good shape. It doesn’t have acid mine runoff or other real high bacteria counts like many streams do. So it’s actually, for a stream flowing through an urban corridor, truly a treasure. It’s an ecological treasure that really deserves our positive attention,” Germanoski said.