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MD Lawmakers Ask for Federal Help to Solve Dam Problem

Conowingo dam UMCESA resolution in the Maryland General Assembly urging the federal government to help solve the problem of sediment buildup behind the Conowingo Dam was recently passed unanimously by the Senate Education, Health, and Environment Committee.

The dam is located about 10 miles north of the Chesapeake’s Bay northern end on the Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh water into the Bay.  For decades, the dam has been trapping some dirt and pollutants flowing down the river, thus helping to reduce the pollution in the Bay.  But now the reservoir behind the dam is filling up with sediment.  This poses a serious problem, because large storms flush large amounts of sediment and phosphorus pollution  from behind the dam, mudding the nation’s largest estuary.

A resolution proposed by state Delegate Steve Schuh of Gibson Island and state Senator Bryan Simonaire of Pasadena urges Congress to approve a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge sediment from behind the dam.   The full Senate is expected to vote on the resolution soon, and the House is also expected to take action.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been engaged for many years in studies of the sediment problem at the Conowingo Dam, including the impact of phosphorus flowing over the dam on the low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Bay.  And CBF intervened in a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing procedure for the dam, to make sure that the water quality issues spilling from the dam are addressed. CBF is also pushing for improved passage of fish up and down the Susquehanna River.

“While there have been a number of potential solutions to the sediment and associated phosphorus (pollution) issue identified, dredging seems to have high cost and low environmental benefit compared to other potential offsets that could be accomplished throughout the lower Susquehanna watershed, at least for addressing impacts to the dead zone,” CBF Maryland Senior Scientist Doug Myers wrote to the state Senate committee. 

“However, CBF is convinced that if dredging sediments within the reservoir becomes part of a suite of mitigation requirements and Bay management measures that are shared goals, it may be appropriate to cost-share those expenses between the applicant and several levels of government including the federal government, which would require congressional authorization and appropriation,” Myers wrote.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo of Conowingo Dam from UMCES) 


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um something tells me the easiest solution to this is removing the dam all together, unless it has a serious necessity, which i don't know, but doubt it does

Well, it is a hydroelectric dam, so removing it would reduce the amount of emissions-free electricity generated in the region.

Also, removing it would allow the tons of sediment stored up behind the dam to flow freely down into the Bay. That would mean a lot more pollution, all of a sudden.

Now, in theory, workers could dredge the silt out first, truck it to a landfill or use it as fill in construction projects, and then remove the dam.

Why is it the Federal or State Tax Payers problem and not the electric company's problem?

I don't remember getting a check as a share of the electric company's profits over all these years, so why should I assume their liabilities?

An excellent point, Paul, and I agree with you completely. The power company that owns the dam should have to pick up much of the cost of dealing with the sediment problem, in my personal opinion. It's a matter of maintaining their own generation facility. Now, the power company could argue that they aren't responsible for all the silt flowing down the river -- which is true. But they are responsible for maintaining their dam in a way that does not cause excessive damage to the river.

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