Member Highlight: Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper

Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper is a well-known group to those of us in the Bay watershed. Championing clean water for the Mid-Susquehanna area, they pioneer education programs of many kinds - including the education of their "Little Keeper" sewage sniffing puppy Sussey. We spoke to Carol Parenzan, riverkeeper, to learn more about the organizations work and how her one woman team is changing the Susquehanna.

In one sentence describe your mission as a group:

Middle Susquehanna RIVERKEEPER® is the WATERKEEPER® Alliance-licensed voice advocating for clean water in the headwaters section of the Susquehanna River watershed, defined by the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River, an approximate 11,000 square-mile area in North-central Pennsylvania.

Tell us a little about your work with Loyalsock Creek and what it took to help make it Pennsylvania’s River of the Year?

The Loyalsock Creek is a 64-mile-long treasure in a sparsely populated mountainous section of the Susquehanna River watershed, flowing southerly to the West Branch Susquehanna River. With the recognition of Pennsylvania’s 2018 River of the Year, this local legend will now receive state-wide focus, drawing visitors to the watershed for recreation while advancing economic development for the residents and businesses in the area.

To receive this honor, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), in partnership with Pennsylvania Organization of Watersheds and Rivers (POWR), solicited nominations from organizations around the state in support of select watersheds. Middle Susquehanna RIVERKEEPER® Association, Inc., in partnership with Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association, submitted an application for Loyalsock Creek.

Photo courtesy of Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper

Photo courtesy of Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper

From many nominations, five waterways were selected, including Loyalsock Creek. For about four weeks, the public was invited to cast one vote per email address for their favorite waterway (river, stream, creek, lake). At the end of the voting period, Loyalsock Creek surged ahead, surpassing the other nominees from more populated areas of the state, and was formally recognized as the River of the Year.

This popularity contest for River of the Year has not been the creek’s only “challenge.” Logging stripped the mountains of its native natural resources, and its headwaters were impacted by coal-mining activity and now receive treatment for abandoned mine drainage (AMD) issues. The watershed sits in the heart of the Marcellus play and the area is home to active natural gas development including wells, access roads, and pipelines. In October 2016, an extreme weather event contributed to the rupture of a c.1937 gasoline pipeline, releasing an operator estimate of 50,000 gallons into the exceptional value trout stream, and causing wide-spread bank erosion and stabilization issues and road and bridge closures. And, in 2017, a 60,000-gallon flowback spill off an active natural gas well pad found its way into a tributary of the Loyalsock.

But the positives outweigh the negatives, as the Loyalsock Creek is home to the rare hellbender, one of the state’s most popular state parks – Worlds End State Park, the 60-mile Loyalsock Trail (and its breathtaking vistas), premier bird-watching spots, and historic covered bridges. For me as the Middle Susquehanna RIVERKEEPER®, it is that go-to spot when I need to regroup and re-energize. It reminds me of why I do the work I do.

With this 2018 recognition, Middle Susquehanna RIVERKEEPER® will work to create opportunities for community members to connect with the creek. In addition to a paddling adventure, other programs include a music and arts festival, a family science day along the creek, small business spotlights, a floating classroom, a wellness workshop, educational walks and talks, a historic covered bridges tour, an artist residency with elementary school students, a youth fishing day, and even river snorkeling to take a peek beneath the surface.

The overall goal is to then transfer this local recognition and watershed appreciation to the larger geographic region that defines the work of Middle Susquehanna RIVERKEEPER®.  We all deserve swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters in Pennsylvania, on the Loyalsock Creek and throughout the watershed of the Mighty Susquehanna River.

What issue area do you hope to focus on more of in the future?

One of our current focus areas is environmental justice, working with communities that have been historically underserved, such as the coal-mining communities.

First, Shamokin, an economically depressed but once prosperous city in the watershed, is my family’s home – but not where I was born or raised – that was in the “Willy Wonka World” of Hershey (Pennsylvania). My family moved from Shamokin to Hershey before I was born but family took me back to Shamokin on a regular and consistent basis.

Photo courtesy of Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper

Photo courtesy of Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper

As a child growing up witnessing these two geographic and economic extremes , it was difficult to understand why the Shamokin area creeks ran red, the coal-waste mountains were high and black and supported little life, and my cousins living in Shamokin had vastly different opportunities than I did in Hershey. This realization is what pushed me down the path of environmental engineering. I wanted to build a change.

I believe that everyone deserves to be an active player in creating this change, including our prison population. Last summer we launched our Environmental Steward Prison Pilot Project, where for one week, I was in residency with six inmates in a remote section of the watershed. They were my partners for the week. And although I shared my knowledge with them about water quality, macroinvertebrates, and community leadership in environmental stewardship, they taught me – about the fear of water and the darkness of the woods, about not being heard or recognized, and about the will to be the difference. Two of the six “residents” had never placed their toes in freshwater. The concept was foreign to them. By the end of the week, they were relaxing on boulders in the river, writing in their nature journals, exploring environmental career options upon their imminent release, and preparing to head home to be community leaders and protect their precious water resources. We will be returning in August for another week of partnership. We are also exploring hosting a green jobs fair for all of 500 prisoners at this facility. The world needs them, and they need to be a critical component of our environmental movement. It’s a global second chance.

Our work also focuses on engaging our youth that reside in underserved communities throughout the watershed. We work with them through schools, summer camps, and youth organizations, looking for opportunities to give them experiences, such as kayaking, fishing, and environmental exploration, that they may not have otherwise. Last summer, for example, using the flume lab at Bucknell University, we worked with underserved youth to create a whitewater kayak course and then transferred that experiential knowledge to our own river and witnessed the impact of local bridge construction. Through a scholarship program, we will be taking a contingency of teenagers on our River of the Year paddle. We are looking forward to this day on the water with them.

Now that you have been appointed to the State’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board (EJAB), how will the work you do change? What new role will you be playing in local environmental work?

First, we are not Philadelphia. We are not Pittsburgh. We are an area that includes a significant poor, working white population. We are not the typical face of environmental justice, and that brings about its own set of challenges as our struggles are not always acknowledged. We’re working to change that.

But, my role for the present is that of a student. I have much to learn about the history of the Pennsylvania Environmental Justice movement and the Board’s vision for its future.

The Advisory Board meets in person four times a year. I have now attended two of these meetings and have walked away inspired and energized. My colleagues are my teachers. I welcome their instruction. And I am depending on their guidance.

Photo of Sussey, the "Little Keeper"

Photo of Sussey, the "Little Keeper"

As a member of EJAB, it is not my role to be the voice of my communities but to assist them in finding their voices. For now, I am uncovering those potential voices and partnering with them to share the message and engage in change.

This appointment also influenced our recent office relocation. We have purposely placed ourselves in the environmental justice community of Sunbury, where approximately 24 percent of the population lives at or below poverty level. Our new digs puts us along the Susquehanna River at the confluence of the West and North Branches. We are marketing it as the “Gateway to the Headwaters of the Mighty Susquehanna.”

At this location, we encourage community members to visit with us. We have created a resource library and we host nature book club gatherings there as another open door. (Our first book was The Riverkeepers by John Cronin and Robert Kennedy Jr., the leader of the Waterkeeper movement.) This location also allows me (and my conservation canine “Little Keeper” Susquehanna, who is being trained to detect sewage leaks in the watershed) to take walks along the river throughout the day and engage in conversations with community residents and business leaders. Wonderful words are exchanged when gazing at the water.

But being in Sunbury in the heart of historically disproportionate opportunity also provides us the entry to engage in conversations about economic development and entrepreneurship. Part of my background includes entrepreneurial consulting and teaching business development skills through a global consortium of over 2,700 colleges and universities. I want to bring this knowledge home to our watershed and work with residents to create businesses that will support growth up and down the river. We also want to extend this entrepreneurial movement to the prisons. We are in the beginning stages of developing an eco-preneurship program for prisoners to offer “green” business planning guidance and mentorship.

We have much work to do.

What do you hope to gain from being a member of the Coalition?

There is nothing stronger than partnership and collaboration. As water warriors, our collective words are more persuasive, our actions more noticeable, and our energy amplified. Together, we give voice to clean water and the Chesapeake Bay.

As an organization of one person, I rely on the strength of many, especially my Coalition colleagues. I could not begin to do this work on my own – from your providing legislative updates and lobbying opportunities, crafting letters of support, partnering for legal guidance, offering ongoing professional education and updates, and more. Did I mention encouragement? Yes, encouragement. Thank you for your encouragement!

I regret that I can’t be more active with the many programs spearheaded by the Coalition. It is difficult at times to be on conference calls (especially when I’m in a mountainous non-cell-service area) or to attend in-person gatherings in the Bay area due to the distance. But I think of you often and read the minutes and reports as they appear in my inbox.

As I grow more comfortable in my role as the Middle Susquehanna RIVERKEEPER® and as a member of the CCWC, I hope to mentor the next new water warrior in the group. We all live both upstream and downstream, and this includes the flow of knowledge.

And I do look forward to my time with all of the CCWC members, and I’ll be welcoming “you-ins” (that’s coal-cracker talk) to Pennsylvania in May for the annual conference. We’ll know if you’re native or not by the way you pronounce Lancaster or how you respond when we ask you to “outen the lights.” Till then, thank you! Safe travels to Pennsylvania.

Mary Katherine Sullivan is an intern at Choose Clean Water.