Analysis: Who Gives a Dam About Conowingo?

The answer should be: we all do.

Everyone, from the EPA to Eastern Shore county governments and a wide spectrum of environmental organizations, agree that the sediment buildup at the Conowingo Dam at the head of the Chesapeake Bay is an immense and imminent threat to the Bay’s health. Phosphorus and nitrogen laden sediment pouring over the Conowingo during an extreme weather event could severely impact any gains in Bay cleanup efforts.

Evaluating its rank on a list of Bay region environmental issues—how to fix it, and how to pay for it—is another matter. While environmental organizations clash with a seven county alliance formed to define their responsibility and role to meet Watershed Implementation Plan mandates, the DNR may have the last word on the dam’s overhaul by requiring Exelon to meet strict water quality requirements.

Online in 1928, the Conowingo was the largest run-of-the river hydroelectric stations ever built and is the last in line of more than 20 dams along the Susquehanna River flowing from Cooperstown, NY, to the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay delivering to the estuary more than 60% of the Bay’s fresh water. Aside from providing power and cooling water for the Peach Bottom Nuclear Plant, three million tons of sediment arrive to the dam each year and one million tons spill over the gates. 83 years later, the sediment buildup, estimated by a US Geological Survey at 160 million tons, may be close to critical mass and a sediment spill-over driven by an extreme weather event could have catastrophic consequences for the Bay

Even without an extreme weather event like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 that poured four years of sediment into the Bay in one day, the dam at full sediment buildup capacity could pour three million tons of oxygen depleting phosphorus and nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay on a yearly basis.

But there are two contending evaluations about how to prioritize the growing sediment crisis at the dam.

Seven Eastern Shore counties, represented by Funk and Bolton attorney Charles “Chip” McCleod in Chestertown, have created an alliance of counties—The Clean Chesapeake Coalition— to make sure their concerns for fiscal responsibility are protected against what they consider to be an unfair burden of costs mandated by the Maryland Dept. of the Environment to meet the EPA pollution limits.  The counties also believe that the various upgrade requirements for storm water and wastewater treatment plants, septic system overhauls and other controls are ‘busy work’ programs adding little to Bay cleanup efforts while avoiding the true crisis at hand—the Conowingo.

In fact, the dam is often cast as being completely off the radar as far as any “official” concern for a solution to the sediment buildup crisis. But currently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland’s environmental agencies are undertaking a $1.4 million study seeking a solution.

The Conowingo has also not gone unnoticed by the EPA who have included calculations of the dam and its relationship to Bay pollution in its original Bay study, and agreed to revisit the dam issue during the EPA’s 2017 mid-point reevaluation.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation points out that, while the Conowingo poses significant challenges to the Bay region’s health—specifically the northern part— sediment over the dam is not responsible for severe upriver and tributary pollution caused by phosphorus runoff above tidal zones, highlighting that fact that there are two fundamentally different issues requiring different funding mechanisms.

CBF says that the EPA mandates absolutely need to be continued and that the 2010 TDML (Total Daily Maximum Load) target of phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment should not be lost in a contest of prioritizations.  They do not see the sediment issue at the Conowingo and implementing the local WIP requirements as an either/or set of priorities.

Part of the answer lies in the relicensing of the dam to Exelon, its management company.  Currently, their operational license expires in 2014 and management contracts can last as long as 47 years. Everyone would like to get the sediment issue right for the Bay’s health to be locked into a 47-year contract.

Bruce Michael, Director of the DNR Resource Assessment Service, at a presentation given to the Democratic Club of Kent County on Saturday April 20, said that, “it behooves everybody to have [Exelon] relicense the facility. They’re generating power for the State, and it’s basically what we call green power, because it’s not producing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. They want to get it done. We want to get it done.”

Michael also emphasized that sediment management is the highest priority in the DNR and MDE’s negotiations with Exelon, and that Exelon is aware of their priorities.

“There are a lot of issues that have to be addressed with relicensing, but I can tell you, and we have let the applicant and everybody know, that addressing the sediments behind Conowingo Dam is our single highest priority in the relicensing process,” Michael said.

After Exelon filed for their final license application in August of 2012, they will provide a “Ready for Environmental Assessment” in the next few months.

“Everything has to be addressed one year after they do that. Specifically, a water quality certification by the Department of the Environment, and that’s our trump card…if they do not get a water quality certification, that means that MDE will say that if your facility is negatively impacting water quality to the Chesapeake Bay, we can deny the license, we will not give you the water quality certification. We’ve let Exelon know this, and that addressing the sediments behind the dam is our highest priority. We want to make sure that Exelon is part of the process, and they certainly understand that, and we’ve made it perfectly clear.”

“Just because they’re requesting a 46-year license doesn’t mean they are going to get a 46-year license. We can put together our water quality certification and say, “okay, we’re going to renew this in one year, we’re going to renew this in three years, as we get more information, but during the meantime, we want you to do this, this, and this.” So, it’s not like it’s an endgame that they have a license and forty-six years from now we’re going to revisit this. We have the opportunity through the WQC process to address some of those particular issues,” Michael said.

Along with the DNR, MDE and Exelon, other interested parties at the negotiations will include Pennsylvania environmental programs, fishing and boating commission, US Fish & Wildlife, looking at fish passage prescriptions, the National Park Service, Susquehanna River Basin Commission, The Nature Conservancy and  The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

Citing 2002 studies for the whole watershed implementation plan and the baywide TBL, Michael says that the combined efforts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York will reduce the sediment spill-over from three million tons to two million tons or less.

“This is what we’re using the models for — to help us forecast what the sediment loads might be, and what it means to the Chesapeake Bay. Even though it doesn’t mention the impacts in 2025 when it’s completely full, the model is using monitoring data over 1990 through 2000. We had some high-flow events in there and we’ve looked at the impact on water quality to the Chesapeake Bay with the high-flow events. We are doing a midpoint assessment in 2017 with the Chesapeake Bay Program and all of our partners, and we’re looking at what the impacts are to the Chesapeake when the dam is full, if it didn’t have the trapping capacity. We’re running those in the modeling scenarios that we’re looking at. Most of the impacts, and we’ve actually run some of those runs now, are in the upper bay. It doesn’t impact what’s happening in our tidal-fresh areas or portions of the Potomac, the Patuxent, the Choptank, the Chester, and what’s happening upsteam. It affects the mainstem of the Bay, but it doesn’t really impact the water quality at some of that local level upstream that everybody is responsible for.”

Michael’s overview of the Conowingo conveyed a need for a wider partnership when addressing all the issues facing the health of the Chesapeake.

“We all want clean water, and I know that the Clean Chesapeake Coalition — they want clean water as well. So we can’t just put it off and deal with the sediments behind the Conowingo Dam. There’s a lot of local impacts to water quality that we’re all responsible for, not just in MD, but in VA, WV, NY, PA, all the states. And all the states have committed at this point. We have a tracking system in place to monitor if they’re not meeting those. There are potential federal regulatory things that they can impose upon the states if they’re not making it. We have backstop plans.”

As US Army Corp of Engineers continue  their studies for a solution to sediment accumulation in the dam resevoir—including a look at a sluicing procedure that would deliver controlled amounts of sediment through the dam during winter months when Bay aquatic life is dormant—Federal and State partnerships will continue to develop plans for local Water Implementation Plans (WIPS). How the individual county WIP plans progress will depend on their interpretation of the benefits of the overall Bay restoration program, its costs per county, and the county’s ability to meet those costs.

Both the Chesapeake Bay Foundations and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition of counties believe the Conowingo Dam is of paramount importance and both feel that WIP plans are also strategically needed, but prioritizing the two appears to be the dam in the flow of dialogue.

For those wanting an in-depth understanding of this issue, here is a video of the April 17 meeting in Cambridge the Conowingo Dam panel discussion with Dr. William Dennison, Vice-President of Science Applications, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Ron Fithian,Chair, Clean Chesapeake Coalition and Kent County Commissioner, Charles D. “Chip” MacLeod, Attorney, Funk & Bolton P.A., and Dr. Beth McGee, Senior Water Quality Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation. This video is an hour long.

dam shot