Ballerinas, Tights, and the Myth of the Conowingo Boogeyman by William Herb


Motherhood, apple pie, and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition! What kind of curmudgeon could possibly find fault with such righteous-sounding institutions? But as Neal Hagburg writes in his song, If it ain’t you: “You ain’t a ballerina just because you like to wear tights when you dance”. Wearing the mantle of a clean Chesapeake doesn’t automatically make you a protector of the Bay.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC), organized in 2012, comprises Caroline, Cecil, Carroll, Dorchester, Kent, and Queen Anne’s Counties. Membership consists entirely of government officials from these six counties. CCC’s stated objective is “to pursue improvements to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most prudent and fiscally responsible manner-through research, coordination, and advocacy.”

I just viewed the latest video produced by the CCC. While I wholeheartedly agree with their purported desire to have a clean Bay, I find that the video is quite misleading, and serves mainly to promote the hidden CCC agenda of reducing pollution-management efforts (but not pollution) in its member counties, while continually raising the specter of the mythical Conowingo Boogeyman. This is “whataboutism” writ environmentally. You know: “Yes, we do pollute our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, but what about (insert Conowingo or your own favorite villain here)?” The parochial CCC view seems to be that preventing pollution locally is a waste of money, but it is money well spent if someone else foots the bill, regardless of culpability.

If the video is to be taken at face value, the only resource in danger in the Bay is the oyster, and watermen who harvest that particular bi-valve are the only stakeholders damaged by the Bay’s condition. Perhaps it is only Commissioner Fithian’s biases speaking. Yet he and the other Kent County Commissioners are willing to spend $25,000 per year of our tax dollars to promote such bogus ideas while, at the same time, proposing to eliminate fines for certain Critical Area violations. A clean Chesapeake, indeed!

The subject video is misleadingly entitled “The Conowingo Factor”, when in fact it should be titled “The Pennsylvania (and maybe New York) Factor”. I will admit that the new title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but accuracy should count for something even in a time when truth isn’t truth. At the very end of the slick propaganda piece, after the talking heads are blessedly silenced, a text box does grudgingly grant that Pennsylvania is not doing enough to clean up the river before it reaches the Bay. Even that admission is prefaced by a cheap shot at Exelon for not taking part in a pilot dredging study begun by Maryland; a study with some promise, but one also fraught with pitfalls.

The Susquehanna River –the main tributary and source of the Chesapeake Bay–runs through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before emptying into the northern, top end of the Chesapeake Bay.     Map courtesy of Bay Journal

Let’s face it. Pennsylvania’s and New York’s contaminants are horrendous problems, and the CCC deserves props for pointing that out, as well as for flagging EPA’s blunder in failing to recognize the future impact of zero sediment trap efficiency of the Conowingo Dam and pond.

On the other hand, review the past tributary and Bay health scorecards and you will see that we residents along the Bay have not covered ourselves in glory when it comes to pollution. The best water in the Bay is just downstream from the mouth of the Susquehanna River. This relatively good quality owes no thanks to efforts by upstream states to cut sediment, nutrients, and other pollution, but rather is a testament to the free remediation that has been provided by the Conowingo Dam and pond for the past 8 decades. It seems that the CCC and many others simply want to disregard this happy coincidence. The power generation facility does not require clean water, but, as a by-product of its design, it has remediated the upstream mess for 80 years at no cost to the upstream polluters or the downstream beneficial users.

The same scorecards will reveal that when the relatively clean water enters the Bay, we Marylanders, including the residents of the six CCC Counties (C4), immediately begin to degrade it, and Virginians and DC residents are no better. Most of the contamination from the C4 is caused by agriculture, which does not have enforceable discharge limits (but which offers the most cost-effective way to reduce sediment and nutrient TMDLs). The Bay score stays low until the waterbody experiences flushing from the ocean via tides. Once again, a free remediation (natural, this time) helps clean up our misdeeds. We are all to blame for the quality of water in the Bay, and it is unconscionable to deflect the blame to others while trying to avoid our own responsibilities.

“The Susquehanna River, the Bay’s largest tributary, carries nutrient and sediment pollution from Pennsylvania and New York. Efforts to curtail a key nutrient, nitrogen, have fallen behind because of lagging cleanup progress in those two states, EPA says.” (Photo with caption from  Bay Journal article June 2016)

There are 3 major contaminants coming down the Susquehanna and all the other Bay tributaries: sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen. These are produced by processes and activities (natural or human) in the watersheds. Human activities predominate as causes of the contamination.

Assuming that cleaning up our own act here in Maryland makes sense, how should we view what is going to be happening in the near future when the Conowingo Dam and pond will no longer trap sediment as they have in the past? Let’s look at energy production as well as sediment and nutrient delivery to the Bay.

It is doubtful that there will be a significant impact on energy production. In a “run of the river” system such as Conowingo, energy production depends on the head (elevation) of water above the turbines, not on the scant amount of water stored behind the dam. Also, as previously noted, nutrients do not affect electricity production. So cleanup of other people’s pollution is not a driving economic factor for the owner and operator of Conowingo or for its customers and shareholders.

A reduction of nutrients in Bay waters will help promote the long-term increase in underwater grasses, which support fish, crabs, and waterfowl. (Photo by Dave Harp,  Courtesy of Bay Journal)

Nitrogen, which should be controlled at its upstream sources, is largely in solution, so the presence of the dam and pond have had no significant impact on delivery to the Bay, and if the dam’s sediment trap efficiency is reduced to zero, that will not change the situation.

Sediment is a huge problem. But the source of the problem is in the production of sediment in Pennsylvania and New York, and not a problem inherent in the dam and pond. The CCC makes much of the highly visible plume of sediment that passed through the dam following Tropical Storm Lee, but they conveniently neglect to mention that that plume would have been there without the dam or even if the dam had the trap efficiency of its heyday. Those extremely fine silts and clays pass through the Conowingo pond and dam like crap through a goose and remain suspended for miles downstream due to basic physics.

CCC also emphasizes the fact that 4 million tons of sediment were scoured out of the pond in Lee, but minimizes the fact that an additional 15 million tons came down from Pennsylvania and New York in the same flood event. They also tend to ignore the fact that 4 million tons of scour restored some of the sediment trapping capacity for future storms.

Phosphorus, which should be controlled at its upstream sources, is carried on the surface of sediments, and will be delivered to the Bay in increasing amounts if nothing happens at the dam. But the impact will look almost exactly like what would happen if no dam were in place at all. During its previous history of free remediation, the Conowingo Dam and pond captured about 40 per cent of the phosphorus coming down the Susquehanna.

The proposed pilot dredging study may provide some useful information. However, there are a number of questions that must be answered before large-scale dredging should be considered as a viable solution. Is there a beneficial use for 280 million tons of sediment contaminated with phosphorus, coal, PCBs, radio-nuclides from Three Mile Island, heavy metals, and other potentially hazardous materials? Is there any place, within practical distance, that will accept the materials? Will any beneficial uses offset the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers estimate of $4 billion for complete dredging?

If these questions can be positively answered, and the cost is considered to be acceptable, the question is: who should pay for the dredging? Is it billed to the potentially responsible parties in Pennsylvania and New York, the beneficiaries of the cleanup in Maryland (including the C4) and Virginia, the Federal Government (good luck taking money from the 1-percenters in the current political climate!), or a corporation whose main environmental crimes seems to be having deep pockets and tone-deaf ears to public sentiment?

The Boogeyman that we really need to address is the reduction of pollution from Pennsylvania and New York. That should be addressed and funded by those states (while we continue to do our share). Perhaps dredging is a viable solution. Perhaps Exelon should be a better corporate citizen. But I do not see where we, the public, should depend upon the largesse of private corporations to take care of what are public problems.

Likewise, I object to my county tax dollars being spent tilting at windmills, especially when CCC can’t even pick the right windmill. Furthermore, I object to my county tax dollars supporting what I consider quasi-extortion in squeezing funding from Exelon through threats from the State of Maryland by Governor Hogan and MDE Secretary Grumbles, aided and abetted by the CCC. And to my everlasting dismay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an organization which I greatly admire, seems quite willing to trade its scientific integrity for a handful of silver.

Well, I guess $172 million a year to the Bay cleanup is quite a few handfuls; at least we know their integrity doesn’t come cheap). Of course, the 35,000 Pennsylvania farms in the Susquehanna basin could contribute about $4,900 each, or each resident of the basin could kick in a paltry $38 to raise the same amount. But it is much more politically expedient to deflect the blame to a corporation.

I can almost see the movie scene in my head. An Exelon executive is waking up one morning and finds a bloodied and beheaded American shad in his bed, along with a note saying: “Nice hydropower license you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

Come to think of it, if the penalty imposed on Exelon for not cleaning up the problems caused by the polluters in Pennsylvania and New York is $172,000,000 per year, perhaps Exelon should consider sending a bill to Maryland and Virginia (maybe Pennsylvania and New York, too) for reimbursement for its gratis efforts over the past 80 years. Fourteen billion dollars would be a tidy sum that could be “donated” to Bay cleanup efforts.

William Herb has B.S. (Forestry) and M.S. degrees (Forest Hydrology) from the Pennsylvania State University and did additional graduate school studies in the Environmental Engineering program at Johns Hopkins. He was a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in College Park and Towson, Maryland, where he specialized in sediment studies, including sediment trap efficiency and sediment production in urbanizing areas. He relocated with the USGS to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and worked on projects characterizing the hydrology and water chemistry in bituminous coal mining areas and statistical hydrology.  He moved on to Texas and supervised a team of about a dozen hydrologists and technicians in extensive hydrologic data-collection programs.

Bill then returned to Maryland as the USGS liaison to the Army Environmental Command (AEC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground.  He managed several divisions within the AEC, and also served as the Chief of the Army’s Northern Regional Environmental Office and the Department of Defense Regional Environmental Coordinator for Federal Region V.  After retirement from the USGS, he joined Booz Allen Hamilton and supported AEC and the Installation Management Command (IMCOM) in managing the testing of Army environmental software and took a lead role in hiring computer scientists and related staff for the newly formed Information Management Division of IMCOM.


Letters to Editor

  1. Jack Fischer says:

    Spot on, Bill! Thanks.

  2. Chris Kayho says:

    ‘Chesapeake Bay Foundation seems quite willing to trade Scientific Integrity for a handful of silver” or a Large Donation. I agree.

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