The Conowingo Debate: The role of the dam in Chesapeake Bay restoration

Bill Dennison ·
24 April 2013
Environmental Literacy | 

The Nanticoke Watershed Alliance hosted a debate in Cambridge, Maryland regarding the Conowingo Dam, which is the southernmost dam in the Susquehanna River, described in the IAN publication 'Responding to major storm impacts: Ecological impacts of Hurricane Sandy on Chesapeake and Delmarva Coastal Bays'. The debate was held in the Dorchester Public Library on April 17. The session was introduced by Shelly Baird, the Executive Director of Nanticoke Watershed Alliance. The moderator was Don Rush from WSCL, the National Public Radio station based at Salisbury University. I particularly enjoyed meeting Don, as I listen to him every morning, and it is interesting to see the person behind such a familiar voice. Don did a great job moderating, as this was a very contentious and polarizing issue.

In addition to my talk, the speakers were Ron Fithian, Rock Hall city manager and President of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, Chip MacLeod, Funk and Bolton law firm, Dr. Beth McGee, Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The room was packed and the audience included scientists from nearby Horn Point Laboratory, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, various Riverkeepers and I recognized people from Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico Counties. W. Michael Helfrich, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper drove all the way down from Pennsylvania to attend.

Chip MacLeod, Ron Fithian, Beth McGee, Shelly Baird, Don Rus
right) at the Dorchester County Library debate on Conowingo dam.
Chip MacLeod, Ron Fithian, Beth McGee, Shelly Baird, Don Rush (left to

One of the things that I observed was that we were all quite passionate about Chesapeake Bay, and everyone wants to have a restored Bay. Everyone was frustrated by the relative lack of progress in Bay restoration, and what was at issue was the priorities and approaches to achieving a restored Chesapeake Bay. We were also largely talking about pollution as misplaced resources. For example, topsoil that washed into streams and eventually the Bay to become sediments that cloud the water and smother oysters is a resource that belongs on farms to grow crops and lawns to grow grass, not in the Bay to reduce water quality. In addition, nutrients that help farmers grow crops and homeowners to grow lawns and gardens that runoff into the waterways cause algal blooms that lead to 'dead zones' of low dissolved oxygen. We need the soil and nutrients in the right place (on land) and not in the wrong place (Chesapeake Bay).

Ron Fithian explained that the Clean Chesapeake Coalition considers the number one threat to Chesapeake Bay to be the Conowingo Dam, or more precisely, the sediments in the reservoir behind the dam that can wash into the Bay. He characterized Chesapeake Bay as "deader than ever". Chip MacLeod said that the restoration efforts like sewage treatment upgrades, septic retrofitting and stormwater management devices to be "busy work", when the major threat of Conowingo sediments was being ignored. Beth McGee and I took issue with the Bay being "deader than ever" and the "busy work", pointing out the resurgence of submerged aquatic vegetation in areas where sewage treatment upgrades occurred (e.g., Potomac River, Patuxent River), with subsequent water quality improvements. I also emphasized that the water quality issues upstream in the tributaries were in the province of the tributary watersheds, and were not affected by Susquehanna flows. Beth and I agreed that Conowingo sediments represent an important issue for Chesapeake Bay, but we noted various efforts being taken by the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment team and various Maryland state agencies, so I do not agree that nothing is being done.

While Ron and Chip had a few facts wrong (for example, Chip thought that more people lived above the dam than below; the ratio is actually more like 4 million above and 13 million below), they were well informed about Bay issues. Ron quite accurately characterized Rock Hall as the rockfish capital, Tilghman Island as the oyster capital and Crisfield as the crab capital. They are advocating for a plan to deal with sediments as part of the relicensing of the Conowingo Dam done by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which I agree with.

The major issue that I have with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition approach is to reduce our efforts aimed at achieving the 'nutrient diet' prescribed by the Total Daily Maximum Load. They argue that it is too expensive and that these efforts are misplaced. Beth and I argued that while diets require discipline and are difficult, they are the only way to achieve the desired result of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay. There are other points of contention like their advocating power dredging oysters and repealing septic legislation, but the major issue is that we should not get off our diet when we finally have begun to ratchet down the flow of nutrients and sediments into our waterways.

Conowingo audience
Audience at the Conowingo Dam debate.

The large turnout for the debate on a weekday evening and the fact that everyone stayed for the two and a half hours was impressive. The passion that everyone had for Chesapeake Bay and the willingness to discuss issues and different approaches in a civil manner bodes well for the Bay. I believe that we should have more civil debates about the way forward, and engage people with different viewpoints. We need to unleash the full potential for people to solve problems, generate creative solutions, and develop entrepreneurial approaches. Maintaining a healthy dialog is a step toward achieving this aim.

Suggested Reading

Conowingo issue heats up. Star Democrat. April 19 2013.

Dennison, WC. Chesapeake Bay: Storm Impacts, Conowingo Dam and Choptank River. Conowingo Dam debate. April 17 2013.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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