By J. Richard Gray
6:00 AM EST, December 17, 2012
The Susquehanna River and its big dams have been in the news lately. A handful of Maryland county officials would like you to believe the dams are the primary ill of the Chesapeake Bay.
They claim that because sediment reservoirs behind the Conowingo Dam are at capacity, instead of trapping pollutants during storms, the dam now allows two pollutants — phosphorus and sediment — to flow downstream at alarming rates. They argue that years of restoration progress have been erased and that current bay restoration efforts do not address these issues. And finally, these local leaders contend that Maryland's investments in restoring the bay would be "futile" and all of the efforts to help our local waters should now come to a standstill.
Well, as chair of the Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) for the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the state governors, Environmental Protection Agency administrator and other senior officials who guide the cleanup effort, I write today with good news — every bit of scientific information available says they are wrong on all counts.
First, they claim 80 percent of the pollution to the bay comes from the Susquehanna River. This figure is not in any of the scientific information I've seen, and no expert I've contacted knows where the number comes from.
Second, the nutrients and sediment passing through the Susquehanna's dams, under all conditions, are indeed accounted for in the state-of-the art tools the bay restoration scientists use.
Third, while storms do increase the freshwater and pollutants flowing through the dam, they by no means erase the progress we have made. For example, the large grass bed on the Susquehanna Flats, located right where that river meets the bay, withstood the flow of fresh water and sediment downstream during last fall's storms precisely because we put time and effort into restoring it to health.
And finally, whatever pollutants get past the dam primarily affect the northernmost tidal waters of the bay and its rivers.
So let's talk about things that are true.
The recent introduction of pollution limits in the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay recognized that we could no longer point our fingers at someone else. We all have to do more to protect our local streams and, by doing so, help the Chesapeake Bay. Many Pennsylvania and Maryland localities are already investing wisely in projects to restore their own local waters and send cleaner water downstream.
In Lancaster, Pa., even before the clean water blueprint was established, we changed our thinking and began to put projects in place to stop polluted runoff before it reaches local waters. We are continuing to invest our money in sewage treatment and stormwater infrastructure, using green technologies and following our comprehensive green infrastructure plan.
Meeting our local goals will be costly in the short term, but recent studies done in and on our city actually show a cost savings in the long run. In other words, if we postpone what has to be done, future generations will bear an even greater financial burden. So we are building Lancaster into a more appealing, livable community right now, with more trees and gardens and healthier waters, all of which give us a better chance of attracting new residents and economic growth.
So, why, LGAC members wonder, would any county or city spend its citizens' dollars on lawyers to fight against clean water rather than using that money to improve its communities and its local streams?
Maryland's local officials should recognize that their counties and towns have the most vital interest in the bay. If they give up their efforts, many in Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states will use that as an excuse to do nothing. Rather than pulling back or arguing, I would expect Maryland localities to fully appreciate the value of clean local waters and set the example for all of those upstream.
There is so much financial assistance available, so many creative "green" engineering firms at work and so many solid, new ways to manage polluted runoff that we are dumbfounded by the resistance from these local leaders toward cleaner local waters for their communities and the bay.
To the extent the Conowingo Dam is an issue, let's get the right people to the table to talk constructively about the facts and solve the problem. The timing is perfect, because the license for that dam is up for renewal.
Enough of creating diversions and pointing fingers to distract from the work that is so sorely needed. It's time to recognize that we are all in this together. It's time — past time, in fact — to get busy on the work we were entrusted to do as our communities' leaders.
J. Richard "Rick" Gray is Mayor of Lancaster, Pa. and the chairman of the Local Government Advisory Committee, an independent group of elected local leaders from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia that advises the Bay Program's Chesapeake Executive Council. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.
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