We need to help our waterways – now

For years, scientists have been saying the Susquehanna River is in trouble.

As a kid, my friends and I fished the river for smallmouth bass, and to do so we caught our own bait. Madtoms, or “catties” as we called them, were small catfish that lived under rocks in the river. To catch them we would work our hands under rocks until we felt one. The next step was to trap the small catfish between our cupped hands and the rock it was hiding under. Once trapped, we put the madtom into our bait bucket until we had enough to start fishing. Hellgrammites, or Dobson, were basically caught the same way. This process usually took no more than a half-hour. Not anymore.

A friend of mine and I were talking recently and he mentioned that on several occasions last summer he and his brother fished the same section of river as we did when we were kids. What he said astounded me. He said he and his brother tried to collect bait but could find none. Not a single madtom could be found by two guys who collected bait and fished the river all their lives.

One explanation is pollution of the river from various sources. For example, research has shown continuous exposure to low levels of medications has altered the behavior and physiology of fish and the aquatic life on which they feed. Until just a short time ago, the public has been advised to flush unwanted or unneeded medications down the toilet. Now, because of better detection methods, low levels of drugs are being found in many of our lakes, rivers and streams, including the Susquehanna.

Think about it. Drugs from farms, veterinary offices, hospitals, nursing homes and private residences are finding their way into the very water many people drink. The problem is so pervasive that, according to a survey done by the United States Geological Survey a few years ago, drugs such as antibiotics, steroids, contraceptives and others were found in the water of 80 percent of the rivers and streams tested.

According to studies done by biologists in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, these drugs are having an adverse affect on fish populations in the river. The studies show male fish are taking on female characteristics and some males have even been found with eggs. In addition, fertility has been reduced and spawning has been affected.

Last week, I was reminded about the seriousness of this problem when I went to the local drug store to pick up a prescription. New York law requires pharmacies to conspicuously post the DEC’s guidelines on “Proper Disposal of Pharmaceuticals,” and as I waited in line to pick up mine, I saw and read the required posted guidelines for disposing of unwanted medications.

Instead of flushing unwanted medication where it can adversely affect our waterways, the poster suggested asking your local pharmacist if they will take back the unwanted drug or drugs and to properly dispose of them. The unwanted medication can be turned in to collection sites or mailed back for disposal using a pre-addressed envelope obtainable from your pharmacist. If that isn’t an option, the guidelines recommended that the medication be mixed with coffee grounds, dirt or something undesirable and thrown into the garbage. It may seem like a small step but we all can do something to save our waterways from further pollution.

Individually, we may not have much of an impact, but collectively, we can do something positive to help our waterways recover.

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