Sunday 23 September 2018

October 10, 2014 Update: New website launched to get the facts: 

Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael Helfrich at Conowingo DamConowingo Dam is a large hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River, near the Maryland/Pennsylvania Border. The drainage area behind the dam is more than 27,000 square miles and extends to Cooperstown, New York.  Conowingo Dam is owned and operated for profit by Exelon Corporation.

Exelon's current license for the Conowingo was issued on August 14, 1980 and expires in September 2014. They have applied for a new 46-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  They have also asked the State of Maryland to approve the license application (by issuing a Section 401 Water Quality Certification under the Clean Water Act).  This decision will affect the Chesapeake Bay for generations to come.

Conowingo vs. Local Water Quality

Some in Maryland are pointing to Conowingo as an excuse not to implement local measures to reduce stormwater pollution. Their reasoning goes something like this: “If the Susquehanna River is putting so much pollution into the Bay, whatever we do locally won’t make a difference.” That is simply untrue. While flow from the Susquehanna certainly is a major driver of water quality in the main stem of the Bay, local impacts are far more important to most rivers, creeks, and streams. Polluted stormwater runoff from developed areas and farm fields, failing septic systems, and other local sources contaminate our rivers, creeks, and streams throughout Maryland, resulting in toxic algae blooms, high bacteria leveals, and water contacts advisories.

Let’s not use Conowingo as an excuse – let’s use it as an opportunity. We now have a chance to act with the FERC relicensing process that won’t come around again for 46 years. If we can require Exelon to remove at least some of the sediment from behind Conowingo, and reduce the threat of a catastrophic event, we can enhance and secure our local efforts to reduce pollution and improve water quality. Addressing all sources of pollution is the only way we can make true progress in our fight for clean water.

Conowingo and Sediment

Over the course of its life, the Conowingo Dam has trapped nearly 200 million tons of sediment, nutrients and other pollutants behind it. This sediment consists of 85 years worth of upstream runoff from the Susquehanna River watershed, including everything from farm fields and construction sites to residential lands. The ability of the dam to store any more sediment is almost at capacity – it’s just about full.  What happens then?

When the dam can no longer store sediment, it will simply continue down the river and into the Bay. More importantly, during a tropical storm or other large rain event, the raging river flow over the dam can scour the sediment stored behind the dam. This can, as in 1972 with Hurricane Agnes, deliver a catastrophic amount of sediment to the Bay – far more than there would be in a big storm if the dam was not there. When too much sediment enters the Bay, it clouds the water, and impacts natural resources like oysters and underwater grasses. The nutrient pollution that accompanies the sediment will cause algae blooms and dead zones.

To adequately protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland agencies and other scientists need more information to assess the impact of the sediment behind the dam.  A recent study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment left several unanswered questions. While scientists are conducting additional monitoring and modeling, some experts question whether this will provide sufficient information to allow Maryland to reliably protect the Bay during the largest storm events.

Provisions in the federal Clean Water Act give the state of Maryland a once-in-a-generation opportunity to require Exelon to meet state water quality standards.  If the scouring of sediment and nutrients from behind Conowingo Dam impairs water quality and causes damage to the Bay’s habitat and living resources, Exelon is responsible for fixing the problem.

Other Impacts

Conowingo Dam also severely impacts migratory fish species such as American shad and eel.  The construction of two fish lifts and previous programs to capture and truck fish above the dam have done little to address the mortality rates and migration problems.

There are also a host of other concerns to address in the re-licensing ranging from recreational areas and facilities, to boating safety, to optimal flow regimes for aquatic life.

Opportunities To Get Involved

On July 30, 2014, FERC issued the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for public comment. The purpose of the EIS is to assess the environmental and economic effects of continuing facility operations and (should) make recommendations for reducing negative impacts.  The EIS currently reflects virtually none of the recommended measures by Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, intervenors in the relicensing proceeding, that were included in our previous comments to FERC.  Comments are due on the EIS by September 29, 2014, and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers Chesapeake will be submitting comments.

Often, one of the most significant steps in the FERC relicensing process is the Section 401 water quality certification that Exelon must receive from Maryland. This section of the Clean Water Act allows affected states to evaluate the potential for dams to impact downstream waters and insert conditions in the FERC permit to protect those waters.  Maryland is currently requesting further information and study from Exelon prior to issuing the certification.  When issued, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers Chesapeake will comment on the water quality certification. 

CLICK HERE for August 22, 2014, MPTV interview with Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael Helfrich


No more delay: Protect our communities from manure pollution

The Maryland Department of Agriculture and Governor O'Malley’s administration bowed to pressure from the agriculture lobby and chose delay over protecting our families and communities from the harmful pollution that is choking our waterways. On Friday, November 15, the administration withdrew its proposed regulations to implement the new Maryland Phosphorus Management Tool, designed to reduce phosphorus pollution caused by excessive application of manure. This marks the third delay in the implementation of these critical regulations, while the problems from phosphorus pollution in our waterways continue to grow.

Phosphorus pollution causes algae blooms that kill underwater grasses, threaten human health, harm aquatic life like blue crabs, oysters and fish, and create an enormous “dead zone” in the Bay. Runoff from manure may also include harmful bacteria and dangerous pharmaceuticals.

The agriculture industry keeps pushing for further delays, which will ultimately make meeting their state and federal requirements to reduce pollution more difficult and more expensive. Many Maryland farm fields with a history of manure (and biosludge) application have phosphorus levels that far exceed what is needed for successful crop growth. Fields with high phosphorus levels can pollute nearby waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Delaying implementation of this tool will result in excessive levels of phosphorus continuing to be applied to the fields and continuing to pollute nearby streams and waterways. The longer we wait to implement the tool – the more polluted the fields and streams will be.

Marylanders depend on clean water for the health of their families and the health of our overall economy. Waterkeepers Chesapeake supports the timely implementation of the Phosphorus Management Tool, which the state has committed to doing in its Watershed Implementation Plan. We have joined other organizations from the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition in calling for Governor O’Malley and legislative leaders to honor their previous commitments. In a letter sent on behalf of these groups on November 22, we write:

According to BayStat, agriculture is the single largest source of pollution to the Bay with more than half of the phosphorus pollution in Maryland coming from farms. How much more delay will occur before we tackle the ongoing problem of dumping excess manure on farm fields that leak phosphorus pollution into our waters?

The Phosphorus Management Tool offers a valuable method to help keep harmful pollution from being applied to the land, entering our streams and ultimately hurting our communities.


Waterkeepers Chesapeake, a coalition of 19 independent local organizations, expressed serious concerns today that the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement fails to put enough specific measures in place to assure meaningful improvement to the Bay and our rivers. Representatives from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. will sign the new agreement today.

The first Chesapeake Bay Agreement established the numeric goals to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Bay ecosystem and was signed in 1987 by the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania and the mayor of Washington, D.C. Several updated agreements have been adopted since then. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, today’s new Agreement establishes “a set of goals and outcomes for the restoration of the Bay, its tributaries and the lands that surround them.”

In response to the draft Agreement, Waterkeepers Chesapeake says the Agreement now includes some laudable new goals, such as reducing toxic contaminants, and addressing environmental justice and climate change. However, the Agreement allows the jurisdictions to opt out of these goals, and, in fact, allows them to opt out of any of the goals.  The Agreement also provides no accountability for jurisdictions that fail to meet the goals they do choose to adopt. Since the draft Agreement was introduced, citizens submitted thousands of public comments, many specifically asking for the jurisdictions to be held accountable for implementing these goals. 

“Each and every jurisdiction in the Bay has to do their share,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “We need a Bay Agreement with enforceable terms, not one that provides loopholes.”

“This new Bay Agreement should be a contract with all of us who live in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” said Michael Helfrich, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper based in York, Penn. “Without a commitment to goals before signing, this is by definition neither a contract nor an agreement.”

The Waterkeepers also expressed disappointment in the lack of specifics regarding how the signatories will achieve the goals in the Agreement. 

“The Bay States have included some important principles in the Agreement, but how will we achieve these goals on toxic contaminants, climate change and environmental justice?” asked David Flores, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.  “For this agreement to work, states must have concrete and transparent paths to reduce pollution and protect water quality and public health.”

Waterkeepers in the Chesapeake Bay area vowed to continue their role as watchdogs in the Bay cleanup effort, using their expertise to hold polluters accountable and enforce environmental laws.

“While we are disappointed that the Bay Agreement does not provide the levels of accountability and enforcement we feel are necessary, Waterkeepers will continue doing what we do best – fighting pollution to protect our waterways and our communities,” said Jamie Brunkow, the Lower James Riverkeeper, based in Richmond, Virginia.

Waterkeeper organizations are grassroots groups that conduct water quality monitoring, implement restoration projects, use citizen enforcement tools and bring legal action to fight for clean water.

TAKE ACTION: Sign the Citizens Bay Agreement