This letter was sent to the head of the Maryland Department of Environment and a similar one was sent to the head of the Department of Natural Resources. A copy was provided for publication.
In August, the U.S. Geological Survey published a report titled "Flux of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Suspended Sediment from the Susquehanna River Basin to the Chesapeake Bay during Tropical Storm Lee, September 2011, as an Indicator of the Effects of Reservoir Sedimentation on Water Quality."
The U.S.G.S. reported last year's Tropical Storm Lee contributed 39 percent of the sediment, 22 percent of the phosphorus and 5 percent of the nitrogen flowing through the Conowingo Dam between Oct. 1, 2002 and Sept. 30, 2011. The report also states that there has been a 55 percent increase in phosphorus loading and 97 percent increase in sediment loading over the last 15 years. Historically, the Conowingo Dam has prevented nutrients and sediment from entering the Bay. Now, the Dam's reservoir has dangerously diminished capacity to trap sediment and nutrients. Major storms exacerbate the problem by delivering heavy volumes of water which scour the reservoirs floor, lifting previously deposited sediment and nutrients and carrying it through the dam's spillways and into the Chesapeake Bay.
Considering that the goal of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay TMDL is to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, the report's data should be a matter of profound concern. The data leaves one certain conclusion. One major storm, like last year's Lee, has the ability to wipe out any advancements in the Bay's health.
The modeling used to develop the EPA's TMDL is fatally flawed. It does not account for a Conowingo reservoir with dangerously diminished capacity to contain sediment and nutrients.
During the 2012 General Assembly Session, I introduced Senate Bill 695. The bill would have delayed any action to implement Maryland's Watershed Implementation Plan for the Bay TMDL until the State completed a full assessment of the impact of opening the Conowingo Dam floodgates after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. This legislation would have allowed time to reevaluate the modeling to factor for the impact of large storms.
Sadly, MDE opposed this legislation, and in testimony stated that, "Such a delay would significantly damage Maryland's ability to meet its Bay TMDL obligations, and potentially impact the Department's operations and finances."
In retrospect, delay would have been prudent as the U.S.G.S. report confirmed concerns that the Susquehanna and the Conowingo Reservoir are the Bay's largest point sources of pollution.
The larger concern however is the conclusion of MDE's testimony.
"The environmental impacts from opening the Conowingo Dam floodgates and other impacts related to Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have no direct bearing on the ongoing effort to reduce the excessive discharges of nutrients and sediment to the Bay from the land and the various land uses that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There is no justification for delaying that effort in order to conduct an assessment of these impacts."
Instead of supporting legislation that would have cautiously explored real impacts to the Bay's health, MDE has recently advocate the implementation of other policies that will all be futile or even counterproductive if there is no remedy to the Susquehanna's pollution.
In the last year we have seen major policy initiatives defended as necessary to reach Bay TMDL goals. The "Septics/Tiering" Bill (Senate Bill 236 of the 2012 General Assembly's Regular Session), the Stormwater Management Bill (House Bill 987 of the 2012 General Assembly's Regular Session), the increase in the Flush tax, PlanMaryland and BAT septic regulations are just a few examples.
These onerous policies will do nothing to improve Bay health, if Maryland refuses to recognize and address the Susquehanna River as the estuary's largest point source for sediment and nutrients.
This leads to several questions:
What is MDE's position regarding the Susquehanna River and the Conowingo dam?
As Exelon is in the process of relicensing the Conowingo Dam with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, will MDE participate in the relicensing process? If so, will MDE demand that Exelon make efforts to restore and maintain the dam's reservoir to its original capacity?
Will MDE request that the EPA, before 2017, reconsider its modeling for the Bay TMDL to include a Conowingo reservoir with diminished containment capacity?
Sen. E.J. Pipkin
Eastern Shore District 36Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun