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I still believe the corps deserves close and constant watching, even harassment, but I am not as adamant as I once was (though many still are) that undammed rivers are always better than dammed ones, and that this is a morally superior position. It seems to me that such rigid value judgments are environmentally unnecessary, and unbecoming.
Curwensville's essential purpose is supposed to be flood control; secondarily it provides recreation. Lyn and I did not especially enjoy the seven-mile lake, since slack water is always a drag after you have been using and enjoying fast water. In the lake we had to dodge a number of powerboaters, fishermen and water skiers. Finally there was the ornery portage. Despite all this, Curwensville is an attractive lake, and if it had been made by, say, glacial action rather than by the Engineers, it would be widely admired both for its beauty and for the wildlife habitat around it, not to mention the fish within it. All the powerboaters seemed to be enjoying themselves in ways they could not have in a shallow, free-flowing river. Their sport was not ours, but they did not appear to be noticeably less sensible or sensitive than Lyn and I.
Nine more dams on the Susquehanna would be awful and excessive. Even one more at a place like Keating would be a major loss for me, and I think a major one for the country. However, Curwensville Lake does not absolutely corrupt the whole West Branch for me and it obviously enhances its value for others whose pursuit-of-happiness rights are just as valid as mine. The boaters, fishermen and skiers make up a potent pro-clean-river constituency. It is neither seemly nor wise for environmental purists to be snobbish about them because they have different esthetic and recreational values.
Clearfield is the principal upstream commercial and trading center on the West Branch. The river runs directly through the town—Clearfield is the only place I know of where you can pull up a canoe in an A & P parking lot—and on the whole has been treated well by it. There is about as little debris as it is possible for 10,000 persons to create. The water remains clear, suitable for swimming, very suitable for fishing.
Downstream, things are much worse, for a few miles worse than anywhere else on the West Branch. First there is the town sewage plant. Wastes are admittedly treated but then are spewed into the river in a great milky, odoriferous gout. Next to the sewage plant is the mouth of Clearfield Creek, a tributary that is almost as big as the West Branch itself. The creek is clear, but suspiciously so, being an odd yellow color like liquid topaz. The rocks in it and the banks along it are stained a startling orange. The color comes from iron sulfate, which is dissolved in abandoned coal mines and pits, then leaches down into the streams.
At this point there is a strange and very visible mix. Lyn, who had never seen such a concoction, called it a Triple-S cocktail. The yellowish water of Clearfield Creek runs in a distinct channel down the south side of the river. In the middle is the flow of whitish, opaque sewage. Most of the clean upstream water hugs the north bank, but it is shortly overwhelmed as Sulphur, Sewage and Stream are quickly blended, with immediate and toxic effect.
Upstream in the clear water we had seen a lot of fry, minnows and bigger fish. In the shallows along the shore there were great balls of polliwogs, and further inland an almost continuous line of frogs. Also present were two biological indicators that invariably attest to the liveliness of water. Sandpipers skipped about on the rocks, even in the middle of rapids, foraging for aquatic invertebrates. Kingfishers perched and hovered in the air, and then plunged into the pools for fish.
Very suddenly, at the point where the Triple-S cocktail was blended, all of these things disappeared—fish, amphibians and birds. The last living thing we saw as we approached Triple-S was a small sucker that had been washed into the mess and was swimming feebly on his side at the surface.
As well as any place in the country, the confluence of Clearfield Creek and West Branch makes an irrefutable case for environmentalism. Poisoning a river—the major artery of an enormous biological community—is a terrible, destructive and dangerous thing to do. Yet, paradoxically, the situation below the point of poisoning also demonstrates how potent and successful a force environmentalism has become.
Fifteen years ago, when I first began visiting the West Branch, there were about 100 miles of virtually lifeless water below Clearfield. Numerous communities and individuals were pouring raw sewage into it and most of the tributaries were scarlet and scalding with acid mine waste. Now, six or seven miles below the poison point, we saw our first downstream fish—again a sucker—and, coincidentally, at the same spot we also saw the first two sandpipers. There are, even now, no big fish for the next 75 miles or so, but the foundations for fish and fishing are being reestablished. Big beds of mixed aquatic vegetation have begun to grow in the river. Invertebrates are reproducing and feeding in them. There are schools of minnows at the mouths of pure-water tributaries, more raccoon tracks in the flats, more wood ducks, mallards and kingfishers nesting along the shores. Untreated sewage is now a minor, if essentially criminal, problem. Acid still enters at Clearfield and some other creeks, but many of the tributaries have been purified, and overall the river acidity is less than half of what it was.