Don’t mess with Conowingo until you’ve cleaned up your act

Don’t mess with Conowingo until you’ve cleaned up your act

Aerial view of Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County. Photo by add1sun

Above: Aerial view of Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County. Photo by add1sun with Flickr Creative Commons License

By Tom Horton

Bay Journal News Service

If I could amend the federal Clean Water Act, I’d include triple penalties for polluters who spend more energy pointing to other polluters than on cleaning up their own mess.

This “we won’t act till they do” dereliction has colossally delayed action to clean up the Chesapeake, and dodging the real issues has become a prime focus of conservative politicians and rural governments in Maryland.

Until someone musters billions of dollars to dredge centuries of sediment from Pennsylvania trapped behind the giant Conowingo Dam, they whine, it makes no sense for them to spend money on their pollution.

Scientifically, this doesn’t hold water. Most of the pollution in Maryland (and Virginia) rivers comes from local sources, not the Susquehanna River; and the polluting sediment that does wash downstream from behind Conowingo in big storms, while significant, is not the bulk of the river’s environmental impact.

But the image of a simple solution upstream that lets folks downstream off the hook is irresistible. Larry Hogan, Republican candidate for governor of Maryland, has embraced the idea, as have several rural counties that have squandered $25,000 each to engage a law firm to lobby for laxer cleanup standards. (Column continues below map)

Chesapeake watershed map by wikimedia

Dump on downstream talking points

So, in the mean and feckless spirit of demagoguery and weaseling our way to a dirtier Bay, and to show how the finger can be pointed in the other direction, I offer Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers some “dump on downstream” talking points:

It’s time we stood up to onerous demands from downstream states whose reckless management will ruin the Chesapeake even if we poured Evian across the Conowingo.

They complain of low crab harvests, even as they catch the pregnant females by the millions before they have a chance to spawn. And how have they responded to oysters reaching an estimated 1 percent of historic levels? Maryland has opened more of the Bay to the most efficient way known of catching the very last oyster: the historically banned practice of power-dredging the public shellfish grounds. This, even as research shows there is no better pollution filter than healthy oyster bars.

Absent an immediate Baywide ban on such egregious fishing, why should Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers place more environmental costs on hardworking folks, especially farmers?

Too much chicken manure

Downstream farmers raise more than half a billion chickens every year on the Delmarva Peninsula and in the Shenandoah Valley. And even after years of debate, and science that shows beyond a doubt there’s way too much poultry manure running into their rivers, they are still “considering” what to do about it.

Is it coincidence that the hotbed of damning Conowingo Dam comes from the Maryland politicians who represent chicken growers? Sure we got a few (zillion) pounds of cow and hog manure up our way — but why should ours stink more than theirs? Let “no poop scooping without reciprocity” be our rallying cry.

Downstreamers fume about sediment coming from Conowingo; yet look at how they have handled their land, from which all sediment comes?

Cutting down forests

Forests, the land use that is least polluting, that holds the soil in place best, covers close to two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed — and Pennsylvanians are losing it only slowly to development, farming and natural gas wells.

Maryland has cut down more than half of its forests, with Virginia only slightly better on its Bay watershed portions. Both are losing woods more than four times faster than Pennsylvania.

Folks in Penn’s Woods will look more sympathetically upon folks downstream once they do some very serious tree planting.

Downstreamers make much of the fact that about half of the riverflow, and thus nearly half of the waterborne pollution into the Chesapeake, comes via the Susquehanna. Upstreamers believe that means half comes from down there.

The downstream folks worry about sediment, as if they were not adding to the sewage burden on the Bay at a horrendous rate. Upstreamers have 3 million poopers in the watershed. Downstreamers have 13 million — and their numbers are growing four to six times faster than ours.

Control population

So before anyone spends money dredging out Conowingo, let’s see something stabilizing, like a “one in, one out” population policy downstream. They can work out the details.

Those 13 million downstreamers burn fossil fuels a lot faster than 3 million upstreamers. In other words, they are more than four times as responsible for the climate change that is dissolving their wetlands as sea level rises and killing Virginia’s eelgrass as the water gets too warm. To see healthy underwater grasses, visit the Susquehanna Flats, just below Conowingo Dam!

To the extent you think the problem’s upstream, don’t send insults — send cleanup money. Because surely as water runs downhill, we’re in this together, 64,000 square miles in six states, all draining one way, to the Chesapeake.

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for the Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. Clean Chesapeake Coalition

    The State of Maryland has easily mustered $3.7 billion of taxpayers’ money (as part of a $14.5 Billion watershed implementation plan (WIP)) to regulate individual septic tanks to remove a minuscule amount of annual nitrogen loading to the Bay (0.3%) while the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that for $500 million to $3 billion the trapping capacity in the Conowingo Pond (14 mile long reservoir above the Dam) could be restored to 1996 levels and give the Bay and downstream Bay restoration efforts some breathing room. Millions of tons of nutrient laden and contaminated sediment will be kept from ever entering the Chesapeake Bay if Exelon (the owner of Conowingo Dam) were required to dredge and maintain Conowingo Pond. The apologists for Conowingo Dam will find themselves on the wrong side of history, particularly when the next big storm visits the Bay watershed. The author of this commentary wrote this in his book “Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake” (published by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation): “…[t]here is a virtual time bomb ticking away behind the 110-foot-high dam at Conowingo, near the Susquehanna’s mouth. The dam currently ‘traps’ 50-70 percent of the sediment washing downstream from Pennsylvania and New York… Since phosphorus tends to bind to soil particles, the dam also keeps some 40 percent of the river’s phosphorus load from washing to the Chesapeake. In the next two to three decades that protection will end, as the reservoir behind Conowingo fills to the ‘equilibrium’ point, where it begins passing most of the sediment and phosphorus downstream…A loss of trapping at Conowingo would cause major problems for water quality in the upper bay and also for dredging the economically vital ship channels serving the Port of Baltimore.” (p. 97)

    How curious that today the same author refers to those who call attention to the threat that Conowingo Dam and the now FULL Conowingo Pond poses to the Bay and downstream Bay restoration efforts as whiners. Farmers, homeowner associations, shopping centers and public works departments are required to (and punished if they don’t) dredge and maintain their stormwater management ponds so that they function properly. Conowingo Pond is the largest stormwater management pond in the Bay watershed and it has never been dredged in 85+ years. See Exelon and CBF websites extolling the virtues of Conowingo Dam including its functioning as a sediment trap for the benefit of the Bay. Unfortunately the Dam’s trapping capacity is gone. With climate change predictions there will be more frequent and intense storms. To allow the “time bomb at Conowingo” to continue to tick unabated is folly.

    With the Conowngo Dam now up for re-licensing by the federal government, and with Exelon denying any responsibility for the downstream impacts of a full reservoir, there is no better time than now for every friend of the Bay to be bringing as much attention as possible to the Conowingo impacts. Water flows downhill….

  2. The Eastern Shore

    You may be right about the relative importance of Conowingo sediment, but you sure demagogue your supporting arguments.
    Crabs, particularly females, are being fished at an historically low rate. 25% of oyster bottom has been placed off-limits to harvest. Farmers have to continually spend more to file pollution plans and contain/dispose of manure. Trees don’t pay taxes, which are so highly coveted by liberal politicians. Population control?! Since your point was to take action and not blame the problem on somebody else… we’re going to miss you.

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