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Stormy weather on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup

Our view: Larry Hogan had some choice words about the Conowingo Dam, but if he’s serious about a regional approach to fighting Chesapeake Bay pollution, he needs to get his facts straight

Last week’s Board of Public Works meeting turned into a real gripe session about Pennsylvania, the Conowingo Dam and efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Gov. Larry Hogan and his state comptroller sidekick got some things right in their scripted several minutes of ire in front of the cameras, but they got some important stuff wrong, too. That’s unfortunate because Governor Hogan gets a chance to provide real leadership on cleanup efforts this Tuesday as members of the Chesapeake Executive Council, including top state and federal officials from the watershed, assemble in Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Baltimore.

Here’s what Maryland’s governor got right: The recent storms dumped much debris and sediment into the bay and the banks of its tributaries, including a lot that came over the Conowingo. Pennsylvania generally isn’t doing enough to reduce pollution in the Susquehanna River. And finally, the state needs to hold Exelon Corp. accountable for pollution related to the Conowingo.

Unfortunately, there was too much he got wrong: Eighty percent of the pollution coming into the bay isn’t from the Susquehanna (it’s closer to 30-to-40 percent), the recent storms haven’t set back cleanup efforts five years, and critics of the governor’s excessive focus on one dam in the Susquehanna are just as correct to be concerned about the Conowingo “red herring” today as ever. And here’s perhaps the most important point to keep in mind (conveniently neglected by the BPW duo): Maryland isn’t meeting its cleanup goals either. It may not be in as poor a posture as Pennsylvania, but it’s fallen behind the pace in several areas including storm water runoff, a problem about which Governor Rain Tax hasn’t always been especially honest and forthright.

That makes the governor’s attack on Pennsylvania simultaneously justified and off base. One can understand the temptation to attack — it’s good politics. Not only does the Keystone State under-perform in the EPA-supervised Chesapeake Bay TMDL, or “pollution diet” as its commonly called, but Mr. Hogan doesn’t need any Pennsylvania votes to get reelected this fall. Nor does he need Exelon’s support in any form, so why not attack the dam’s owner over the fact the hydroelectric facility is not trapping sediment like it did before it filled up with the stuff over decades of service? Well, perhaps because the Conowingo (and now perhaps Pennsylvania’s water quality performance generally) will then be used to justify inaction. Why demand a cleaner Wicomico or Potomac or Choptank if the Susquehanna, the biggest river, isn’t held to the same standards?

So what should Chairman Hogan actually be talking about when the various governors, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and others come to Baltimore? Try this to-do list: Discuss the pending Farm Bill and the need to boost its conservation programs that help farmers pollute less and provide money for forested buffers near the water. Use Maryland’s leverage on Conowingo recertification to help finance anti-pollution measures in Pennsylvania (and thus attack the source of sediment instead of the far more costly and less cost-effective option of dredging the dam). Lobby Pennsylvania to create a dedicated cleanup fund, particularly to help farmers, and commit to studying the impact of climate change on cleanup efforts. Because the heavy rains the watershed witnessed in July are going to happen more often as a consequence of global warming, it’s possible cleanup goals will need to be raised further to compensate.

One more thing. While Mr. Hogan overstated the storms’ impact, it isn’t yet clear how much lasting damage July’s flooding did to the Chesapeake Bay. It’s entirely possible the extra tons of sediment will inhibit the restoration of underwater grasses or leave behind an expanded oxygen-deprived “dead zone” in the bay. But it’s also possible the ecosystem will bounce back quickly. Too much progress has been made in recent years to assume that one storm, or even a series of storms, will reverse it. In either case, attacking Pennsylvania for, literally, “water over the dam” is foolish. What Mr. Hogan and others who care about the future of the Chesapeake Bay need to be focused on is strengthening the pollution diet and making sure EPA is ready to enforce it. Maryland can be a “good” cop, but it really takes the federal government to be the “bad” cop initiating enforcement action against non-compliant states.

The Conowingo isn’t Armageddon. But a failure to address upstream sources of pollution in the watershed’s six states and the District of Columbia would spell doom for the Chesapeake Bay that no dam could hold back.

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