The lingering issue of the millions of tons of sediment trapped behind Conowingo Dam – and what should be done about it – was a major point of discussions Wednesday during a public information session at Harford Community College on the re-licensing process for the hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in the process of reviewing the permit the dam's owner, Exelon Power, has to operate the facility; the permit is up for renewal in 2014.
In the past, the permitting process has resulted in the dam's owners being required to install fish lifts as part of a larger program to restore runs of American shad in the Pennsylvania portions of the Susquehanna River.
In recent years, concerns have been raised about the potential impact on the Chesapeake Bay if the deep beds of sediment that have settled upriver from the dam ended up being washed out by a major flood.
"The sediment I see as the most serious issue," George O'Donnell, a former Queen Anne's County commissioner and waterman, said. "It has blanketed the Upper Bay and taken us out of the shellfish industry."
A major flood in 1972 resulting from Hurricane Agnes is regarded as an example of the kind of damage that can be inflicted on the Bay when years, or even decades, worth of sediment trapped behind the dam ends up being washed into the Chesapeake in a matter of a few days.
A display showed how the Conowingo Pond, the huge impoundment behind the dam, has nearly reached its capacity to hold the sediment that has been collected in the pond since 1929. Recent studies have estimated the pond has reached at least 86 percent of its capacity to hold sediment.
About 50 people attended Wednesday's information session, facilitated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Among those present were advocates for the environment, for watermen and for the communities around the river and the Chesapeake Bay.
Natural Resources Secretary Joe Gill opened the two-hour session with brief remarks, introducing the representatives of the multiple agencies which are part of the re-licensing process, which has been in effect since 2009.
"We are basically in the process of coming to the end of the formal filings . . . the purpose of tonight is to present information to the public," Gill said after delivering his remarks.
Officials with Exelon, which owns the 85-year-old dam, have applied to FERC to renew their license to operate the dam and the hydroelectric energy generating plant.
The current license expires Sept. 1, 2014. Exelon is seeking a 46-year renewal..
"Any agency that you could think of that has an interest in the Conowingo Dam has been involved [in the re-licensing]," Shawn Seaman, program manager with DNR's Power Plant Research Program, said.
Seaman said the re-licensing process takes about five years, and Maryland officials have recommended to the FERC that Exelon complete 32 studies related to various aspects of the dam and its impact on the environment.
He said the state used those studies to "come up with our list of issues that we're trying to address."
Water quality concerns
Seaman said the "broad categories" of issues include water quality and sediment, fish passage through the dam – Conowingo Dam has two mechanical "fish lifts" designed to get fish over the dam when they are swimming up the river – water flow and debris management, and recreation and land use.
Expressing a strong interest in the issue of sediment trapped upriver from the dam, a group of at least 20 people gathered around Lee Currey, director of the MDE's Science Services Administration, Bruce Michael, director of the DNR Resource Assessment Service and Mike Langland, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
They peppered the officials with questions and comments about sediment; representatives of Chesapeake Bay watermen said the sediment and silt that comes out of the pond during major storms smothers shellfish in the upper portion of the Chesapeake below the dam.
Capt. Robert Newberry, of the Harvesters Land and Sea Coalition, who is also a former waterman and lives in Queen Anne's, said he was making a "good living" about seven years ago catching oysters.
"This sediment coming out the Conowingo Dam took an industry that was producing 50 to 70,000 bushels of oysters a year to zero now, absolutely zero," he said.
Charles D. "Chip" MacLeod, a Chestertown attorney who represents the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, an organization of the governments of Allegany, Carroll, Cecil, Caroline, Dorchester, Frederick and Kent counties, said efforts to clean the river and Bay below the dam are misguided.
"We're spending all this money trying to save the Bay below the dam," he said. "It's like a fools errand when this occurs."
Currey and Langland noted the Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study, called the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment Study, of sediment movement along the Lower Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and Maryland, specifically in the portion of the river where four dams, including Conowingo, are located.
"That's going to help inform our decision-making process at the department," Currey said.
Langland said it could cost "hundreds of billions" of dollars to remove sediment from Conowingo Pond.
Michael Helfrich, a riverkeeper for the lower Susquehanna, said officials must consider the costs of depositing the sediment at a landfill, where they would have to pay by the ton, or of transporting it to a mine out of state, as well as finding a large enough area to dry the sediment out.
He encouraged people to work to develop solutions on how best to use the sediment in a practical and ecological manner.
"We need innovation," Helfrich said. "We have a problem, we have a necessity, now we need inventors."
Kimberly Long, Exelon's senior program manager for hydro re-licensing, said company officials view sediment in the dam pond as "a regional watershed issue."
Long noted the dam is a "receiver" for sediment from a Susquehanna watershed of more than 27,500 square miles.
"Conowingo has been serving as a best management practice for the Chesapeake Bay for over 80 years, in the sense that we've been maintaining sediment that would otherwise pass downstream," she said.
Long said Exelon officials have been working with federal officials, as part of the re-licensing process, by providing information on the state of the sediment behind the dam to assist with the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment Study.
Long noted sediment can pass through the dam's spillways during storm events as they open to allow excess water, which is carrying suspended sediments, through.
"Exelon is committed to being part of the solution and being involved with other stakeholders that have concerns with sediment management," Long said.
The re-licensing process is expected to continue well into 2014; the agencies involved must submit their recommendations to the FERC by Dec. 15 of this year, and Exelon must file an application with the state for a Section 401 Water Quality Certification by the same date.
Long said the state must then file the water quality certification with FERC, which will then will incorporate it into any operating license that ends up being issued to Exelon.
She said Exelon can operate the dam for one year beyond the date of its current license, under the conditions of that license if there is a delay or if FERC requires the company to do more to satisfy stakeholders.