Story By Barry Beck As Seen in Fly Fisherman Magazine
The Lackawanna River in Northeastern Pennsylvania was called a “waking giant” in a recent Fly Fisherman feature article (Aug-Sep 2018), was included in the most recent edition of Trout Unlimited’s Guide to America’s 100 Best Trout Streams, and in 2020 it was named Pennsylvania’s River of the year. But it wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago it was hopelessly polluted with acid mine drainage. There seemed little hope for recovery. And things got worse. In 1972 the river was devastated by flooding from Hurricane Agnes, at that time America’s most costly and damaging hurricane, and still Pennsylvania’s wettest tropical cyclone on record. In the aftermath, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the streambed, built miles of levees to contain floodwaters, and turned the river and its floodplains into a drainage ditch. The Lackawanna was also a junkyard for discarded tires, washing machines, and televisions. It smelled of sulfur, and wasn’t even recognized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a trout stream.
For more than 200 years, coal mining was a way of life in Pennsylvania, and it put food on the table. The Lackawanna Valley is home to the largest vein of anthracite coal in the world, and while coal companies and American industry prospered from it, Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams did not. Textile plants, tanneries, and the iron industry also contributed their share of water pollution, to the point that when Scranton became a city in 1888, the water was unfit for human consumption. It stayed that way until the late 1960s, when the coal industry began to dwindle. In 1966 the Lackawanna River Basin Sewer Authority and the city of Scranton’s Sewer Authority were formed to handle wastewater, and the federal Clean Water Act of 1970 provided some hope that the river might have a future.
There were centuries of damage that need to be undone, but the Lackawanna River story is evidence that with help, rivers can come back. But it takes groups like Lackawanna Valley TU, the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, and the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority. And it takes energetic, pivotal individuals like Charles Charlesworth to make it happen.
Due in part to his efforts, much of the Lackawanna River is now a Class A wild trout stream, the backbone of a growing group of recreational users, and an educational springboard for high school and college students who use the Lackawanna to learn how to fly fish and/or study best practices for river restoration.
As a kid, Charlesworth ran a trapline along Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River, and he remembers vividly the cold mornings he spent removing fouled toilet paper from his water traps. He also remembers how a bleach and dye plant upstream discharged effluent that discolored the water and made it stink. These early experiences made a huge impression on Charlesworth, and for the rest of his life, environmental stewardship was part of his character.
His formal involvement with river restoration started 30 years ago when he worked with Schuylkill County TU chapter members to create limestone diversion wells in the headwaters of Swatara Creek. The diversion wells used crushed limestone to reduce the acidity of the water, and created 7 new miles of trout stream where the Swatara was heavily impacted by heavy metals from acid mine drainage.
Charlesworth later moved to Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania (a few miles north of Scranton) where he worked with the Stanley Cooper Sr. Chapter to restore and rehabilitate Bowman Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna that was devastated by Hurricane Agnes decades earlier. The chapter spent a whole year working with the Army Corps of Engineers to stabilize riverbanks, create instream habitat, and to reverse the effects of channelization. It was his first successful experience in working with a government agency to reverse and repair the damage done by the same agency. It was also a glimpse of what needed to be done on a larger scale in the nearby Lackawanna River watershed.
To make that happen, the Lackawanna needed boots on the ground, so working with local fly shop owner Greg Nidoh and many others, Charlesworth started Lackawanna Valley TU (lackawannavalleytu.org) to work with existing organizations to improve the overall water quality and increase and manage trout populations. Not only did Charlesworth get the new chapter off the ground, he has served as a board member, vice president, and then president during the chapter’s most pivotal years.
When LVTU first got started in 2001, most of the river was not even listed or recognized by the state as a trout stream, and therefore had none of the protective regulations that go along with it. According to Charlesworth, just filing the paperwork and getting adequate recognition and regulations from the state was an important part of the battle. The first step was to have the entire river listed as trout water, and now almost 18 miles of the Lackawanna are designated by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) as either Class A Wild Trout Water or as Trophy Trout Water. There is another 8 miles of designated Stocked Trout Water above that, in flowing water that was once too toxic to even hold trout.
“Sometimes I catch hell because I talk too much about the Lackawanna,” said Charlesworth. “Some people don’t want anyone else to know about the Lackawanna, or hear about trophy trout regulations, but this is how rivers get saved. It seems like the more attention this river gets, the better the fishing becomes.”
According to Charlesworth, the designations are a chicken-or-the-egg question. Part of the designations are due to actual habitat and water quality improvements, but part of the reason why the Lackawanna is getting better is also because of the special regulations that come along with Class A Wild Water or Trophy Trout Water. And under the leadership of Charlesworth and LVTU, the Lackawanna has gone from zero to hero in about a decade. “Sometimes I catch hell because I talk too much about the Lackawanna,” said Charlesworth. “Some people don’t want anyone else to know about the Lackawanna, or hear about trophy trout regulations, but this is how rivers get saved. It seems like the more attention this river gets, the better the fishing becomes.”
Charlesworth admits that special regulations are only a small part of the success story of the Lackawanna. Before they could worry about limits on harvest, LVTU had to ensure the water quality and habitat were adequate to support a Class A Wild trout population. Hurricane Agnes in 1972 badly damaged the Lackawanna and its tributaries, and the flood control measures implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers afterward included miles of levees and river channelization.
Under Charlesworth’s leadership, LVTU asked a habitat specialist from the PFBC to study the river and make recommendations on specific improvements to create trout habitat in places where the river was little more than a chute altered to move water downstream as quickly as possible. “We did a lot of research on flood mitigation, and we had to explain to the Army Corps of Engineers that reducing the velocity of the river is actually a good thing,” said Charlesworth. “Increased velocity only creates more problems downstream. It doesn’t solve anything.”
In one instance, LVTU developed a plan for staggered boulders through a 500-foot section of river to slow the current and provide habitat for trout. Charlesworth personally arranged for a quarry to donate eight massive boulders, a half ton or larger. Charlesworth also convinced a logging company to donate eight mature split logs with the root wads still attached. And he secured a crane company to donate a 105-ton crane and operator to move all the structures into place. In the end, the completed project cost LVTU just $1,500 in engineering costs, because all the materials and equipment were donated.
Charlesworth also started a water quality monitoring program on the Lackawanna in a partnership with LVTU and Dickinson College, and that program helped trace source pollution in two cases that led to fines by the DEP against two polluters. “We were out on the river diligently testing water quality with monitoring stations above and below every well pad in the watershed, so we had a baseline and could identify even very small changes in water quality,” said Charlesworth. “In all those years, we never discovered any chemical or toxic discharge directly from a gas well. There was frequently a lot of soil erosion at the sites, but not much else. However, in one case our monitoring station revealed that one of the companies was washing their diesel engines down with a degreaser, and that contaminant was leaching into the water. Even if it’s a very small amount, our water quality testing can detect it.”
In another instance, someone stole a brass valve from a 6,000-gallon oil storage tank, and oil started flowing into the Lackawanna. But the monitoring program caught it, and the PFBC and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality were on site within the hour to shut down the flow of oil.
Charlesworth sees the watershed as the lifeblood of the entire community, but he’s enough of a realist to know that it has to be fixed one piece at a time, and when those opportunities arise, he takes action. One of those opportunities was an abandoned parcel of land along the Lackawanna that was once the site of a municipal incinerator. The soil was tainted with toxins, the land covered in invasive knotweed, and the channelized riverbed was inhospitable for trout. Working with the Lackawanna River Conservation Association (he was a board member at the time) and LVTU, Charlesworth led an effort to restore both the land and the river. Under his leadership, the groups removed contaminated soil and replaced it with clean topsoil, repaired the streambanks, and provided instream structure for trout. They replaced knotweed with a rain garden and a flowering butterfly garden, and built a pavilion for educational events.
“For instance, we did some study areas with different types of streambank restoration, like logs and rip-rap, and what we found was that one of the best ways to stabilize the bank and prevent erosion was to weave willow branches and use them as sort of a blanket along the bank. The willows sprout upward naturally from that blanket.”
Now called the Sweeney Beach Environmental Education Center, the site is a study area, with ongoing test sites to determine best methods for reducing knotweed infestations, and the best methods for streambank stabilization.
“We’ve learned a lot at the site we can use in future projects,” said Charlesworth. “For instance, we did some study areas with different types of streambank restoration, like logs and rip-rap, and what we found was that one of the best ways to stabilize the bank and prevent erosion was to weave willow branches and use them as sort of a blanket along the bank. The willows sprout upward naturally from that blanket.”
The Lackawanna River Conservation Association now hosts an annual river festival at Sweeney Beach with kayak races and educational programs. High schools, local colleges, and LVTU all host educational events there, including the Stream Girls program, fly-tying classes for children in the pavilion, and casting lessons on the Sweeney Beach property.
Sweeney Beach is also a frequent home to another Charlie Charlesworth project, the Keystone/TU Teens Conservation Camp—a partnership between Keystone College and Trout Unlimited. The summer camp is for kids aged 14 to 18, with instructors from three different universities and colleges, professionals from agencies like the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Fish & Boat Commission, Department of Environmental Protection, county conservation districts, and the Penn State Agricultural Extension office. The campers are housed on campus at Keystone College, but some of their field work is at Sweeney Beach or other sites on the Lackawanna River, where they participate in conservation projects. Charlesworth didn’t just help raise the funds to get the project off the ground: He participates as a TU volunteer at each camp.
Getting youth involved in fishing and river restoration is Charlesworth’s biggest passion. He also helped start the LVTU Teens Fly Fishing Club for high school students and also the Keystone College 5 Rivers Fly Fishing Club. The Keystone College club model was so successful Charlesworth worked with former LVTU Teens club members to also start clubs on their campuses at Pitt-Bradford, Juniata College, St. Francis University, and Mansfield University. There are now 11 different 5 Rivers Fly Fishing Clubs on Pennsylvania campuses, and 150 clubs across the country.
In addition to his volunteer work with youth groups and with Lackawanna Valley TU, Charlesworth has served on the board of directors for the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, he’s been a director with the Lackawanna County Conservation District, a member of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority, a member of the Pennsylvania Environment Council, and he’s a graduate of the Penn State Master Watershed Steward Program. Through his efforts with all these groups, the Lackawanna River was named Pennsylvania’s 2020 River of the Year.
He’s also had important roles as president of LVTU, president of Pennsylvania TU, and also as part of PATU’s Legislative Action Committee, which makes monthly visits to the Pennsylvania House and Senate, speaking to members about environmental issues important to coldwater fisheries. In 2019 he stepped down as Pennsylvania TU president and was appointed to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. As a commissioner, he has been involved in the classification of more than 180 new Class A Wild Trout stream sections and more than 600 new Trout Waters designations. In that role, he’s also been involved with significant dam removals in Pennsylvania and in land acquisitions and fishing leases for restoration and/or public access.
His previous awards include the Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Thomas Shelburne Award for Conservationist of the Year (2015), Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited’s Inky Moore Award for Environmental Excellence (2016), and nationally, the Trout Unlimited Award for Distinguished Service (2016). He received a citation from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf in 2015 for his conservation efforts.
Because of his legacy of successful environmental and educational efforts, Charles Charlesworth has now also been named as Fly Fisherman’s 2021 Conservationist of the Year, and Simms Fishing Products will make a $10,000 donation in his name to Lackawanna Valley Trout Unlimited to continue its work in river restoration, water quality monitoring, and youth education.
After many decades of fishing Pennsylvania streams, and seeing both their beauty and their many ailments, I can attest that few people have made the kinds of significant improvements that Charlesworth has. And his successes have come mostly in places that at one time were barely recognizable as trout streams, and with young people who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to get their feet wet in a trout stream, let alone explore it with a seine or fly rod. Hopefully they will follow his leadership and make similar watershed impacts, not just in Pennsylvania but wherever their careers and their lives take them.