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Another Voice: Coordinated effort is needed to protect our water

By Steven Mauro

The recent confirmation of cancer present on the mouth of a bass obtained from the Susquehanna River raises an all-too-familiar problem: a failure of local, state and federal officials to recognize when there is a problem. As someone who has been working on water quality and fish tumors in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario over the past decade, I’ve seen the impact of action, and the consequences of the lack of action.

Presque Isle Bay in Erie, Pa., is a perfect example. More than two decades ago, the bay was listed as one of the Great Lakes Areas of Concern by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Joint Commission, an organization established by the United States and Canada under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.

The discovery of fish tumors or other deformities led to funding for a concerted effort by researchers and environmental officials. Because of these efforts, there was a reduction in the incidences of liver tumors of indicator fish and a vast overall improvement in the quality of the bay water. The bay was one of the first bodies of water to be listed as an Area of Recovery and then delisted altogether as an Area of Concern.

But we’ve still got work to do. Elevated skin tumors on indicator fish species in the bay remain, and Gannon University is involved in genetic testing of these fish to determine why this is the case. Since water doesn’t recognize state boundaries, what we do here in Erie will impact those living downstream in upstate New York. Consequently, the progress we have made here in Erie through partnerships with local organizations such as Pennsylvania Sea Grant and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has not only benefitted this area, but our neighbors in Buffalo and beyond who are linked by the waterways we share.

As a native of the Buffalo region, I’ve spent much leisure time along the Niagara River, and am aware of the previous, current and future challenges facing the Niagara River and other water attractions in the region. For this reason, the ripple effect of the progress we have made in northwestern Pennsylvania is especially poignant to me.

Admitting there is a problem is hard to do. But as the saying goes, it is the first step in recovery, which is precisely what has occurred for Presque Isle Bay.

I would urge our counterparts near Harrisburg to do the same by listing the Susquehanna as impaired, and allocating funds to improve the quality of that water. Erie, Buffalo and the rest of the nation would also do well to continue to enhance coordination of efforts for continued monitoring of our freshwater. Our nation’s most precious resource is too valuable to ignore.

Steven Mauro, Ph.D., is dean of the Morosky College of Health Professions Sciences and a faculty member of the Freshwater and Marine Biology Department at Gannon University.