An environmental leap

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

Since I am not a hunter and gave up fishing some years ago, people occasionally ask me why I spend so much of my retirement time up along the Allegheny River.

If I wanted, I could paraphrase that old political phrase which stressed the importance of jobs and business health to a campaign and say, “It’s the environment, stupid.”

Compared to the Youngtown area, which is where my permanent home is located, the Warren area is somewhat of an environmental leap ahead.

And given all my years canoeing, kayaking and swimming in the Allegheny, I have to chuckle a little when I hear of plans to turn Youngstown’s Mahoning River, a former industrial sewer, into a recreational asset.

So just how long would it take to make the Mahoning swimmable? I recall a stanza from an old song that was popular when I was young … “until the Twelfth of Never, and that’s a long, long time.” In addition to the residue from past abuse, the Mahoning also has problems with cofferdams, railroads, and vistas.

However, Youngstown does have one of the nation’s finest urban parks, 3,200-acre Mill Creek Park, which was founded in 1891 by Volney Rogers to help mitigate the environmental effects of the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry on Youngstown residents.

My wife, when she tires of life along the river (where we lack TV, a computer and thus the Internet, have only rudimentary telephone service and are some distance from stores and the library) has on occasion referred to our getaway as “Siberia.”

But I tend to view this as a compliment. A short Russian film taken in Siberia that was shown during a past Warren international film festival offered glimpses of a region that resembled the Warren area more than a little, but on a more massive scale.

But the winters are surely not as severe as they are in Siberia, and the people are definitely nicer than those portrayed in that film. And life in the Warren area couldn’t be THAT harsh.

In recent visits to a few of my favorite locations in the Warren area, I was reminded of just how environmentally remarkable those sites are. But I am also forced to admit that there are a few problems.

In river trips, particularly along quiet river eddies, I noted how the river is such a healthy soft-shell turtle habitat. Many splashed into the river from rocks where they had been sunbathing, and through the clear waters, others could be seen scuttling along the river’s bottom amid the river weeds. The turtles and the clarity of the water were certainly a sign of an ecologically healthy river, with little serious pollution entering from the north.

Some years ago, a woman diver surveying the river off our property for a federal agency in advance of the replacement of the bridge at West Hickory told me that she hadn’t seen a river of equal quality “this side of Maine.”

More recently there was that meeting in Warren where a Pittsburgh-based environmental agency complained that effluent from Pennsylvania oil and gas fracking wells was being released into the river at the Warren wastewater treatment plant.

Also, this year a couple of inches of mud covers the river bed just offshore from where out cabin sits. The culprit, of course, is Conewango Creek, which, after heavy rains, spills a deluge of muddy water into the Allegheny from the farm fields to the north that it drains. Don’t the farmers miss all that topsoil?

The situation is similar to that in western Ohio, where the Maumee River sends nutrient-laden water from agricultural areas into Lake Erie, causing a buildup of algae and thus serious problems with purifying Toledo’s drinking water. The city was without potable water for a time a few years ago.

Another of my favorite places is the now much-improved road and bikeway in Game Lands 29 that runs between Chapman State Park and Dunham Siding and follows the West Branch of Tionesta Creek for much of its length.

Some years ago, a large beaver dam up close to Dunham Siding was destroyed when the creek became a torrent after heavy rains. I now see that, after a long struggle, the beaver have rebuilt their dam down closer to the state park. The dam is certainly a tribute to the perseverance of the animals and to the health of their environment.

I think the State Game Commission also deserves some credit since the dam was built on a ford in the steam which formerly allowed passage to the road and bike trail from the main portion of the game lands to the west. Commission rangers apparently just allowed the beavers to have their way.

Another place I visited recently that was part of past travels in the area was the bathing beach which lies along the Kinzua Bay portion of the Allegheny Reservoir just below the bridge over that segment of the reservoir.

I didn’t wear bathing goggles for part of my swim on that hot afternoon. Because of a heat wave that had persisted for days, the reservoir water was quite warm and was rather turbid, not cool and refreshing as it had been during my other visits to that beach. Subsequently, my eyes became severely irritated, a malady that persisted for days.

I have had this same trouble before, and I know that it is caused by swimming in waters with poor or no circulation and are frequented by a good number of people, including young children. I fear that was the case that day at the reservoir.

The swimming area is also unguarded, the changing rooms are closed, and the actual swimming area is not delineated.

Kinzua Beach may have a beautiful setting, but given present conditions, it is of dubious value as a bathing beach.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.