Earth Day Special: Threats to the South Branch and Adjacent Tributaries of the Upper Potomac River

By Brent Walls, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper

We are all connected to the river in some way or another. Many of us have childhood experiences of splashing in a cool stream from a rope swing, floating down the river in a black inner tube, or casting a line with a family member. Some of us continue those experiences and pass them down to the next generation. Even if you don’t have those memories nor venture down to your local stream, the chances are high that the water you drink comes directly from a river. Even our well water interacts with a river in some capacity. River water runs through all of us.

The South Branch of the Potomac River is an amazing river with many remarkable features and recreational opportunities. From geological rock formations to sport fishing, the South Branch has something for everyone. Not to mention, it is the most accessible river in the Eastern Panhandle, with more than a dozen public access points. One can venture on a multi-day trip, or plan a short family fun float. However, the South Branch faces many challenges, which threaten our recreation and enjoyment, and not all of these challenges are environmental.

In environmental circles, the South Branch is known for being ground zero for the discovery of intersex fish. The term, intersex, applies to the abnormal condition of a species that possess both male and female sex organs. When USGS biologists investigated a series of fish kills in 2003, they found many small mouth bass populations with hermaphroditic traits. These Intersex fish did not arise overnight, but rather through genetic mutation over time. USGS biologists theorize that the condition derives from long-term chemical exposure of herbicides and pesticides used throughout agricultural land.  The South Branch is not the only place intersex fish are found. USGS documented cases in the Shenandoah River, and in streams in New York State and the Great Lakes region.

Why is the discovery of intersex fish important? It is an extreme example of our collective impact on the river. What we do on land or in our backyards directly affects our rivers and streams. Awareness is one of the biggest challenges all rivers face. Where your water comes from and goes to should not be a question, it should be known. Earth Day is about understanding your connection to the landscape, and to create awareness of all of the impacts we have on these precious resources.

Take advantage of the day and do something that connects you to a river. Go fishing, take a boat ride, modify a daily routine or join in on a river cleanup. If you are really feeling ambitious, educate yourself on the issues and join a watershed organization such as mine... Potomac Riverkeeper Network.