Exelon must upgrade Conowingo dam

As the Exelon Corporation seeks a new 46-year federal operating license for the Conowingo Dam and a commensurate water quality certificate from the state of Maryland, much of the conversation and press coverage has focused on Exelon’s shared responsibility for managing additional pollution associated with sediment build-up behind the dam and the pulsed release of that stored sediment during scouring floods (“Conowingo is not the only polluting dam,” Jan. 3). However, this additional pollution is just one of the impacts that needs to be addressed to bring Conowingo into the 21st century.

Right now, water is held and released daily by the Conowingo Dam creating an unnatural cycle of drought and flood on the Susquehanna River between the dam and the Chesapeake Bay, harming wildlife like river herring, striped bass, mussels and other endangered species. During dry summers, it can also create prolonged periods of low river flows which can impact the quality of water stored in the reservoir and later released into the bay.

Conowingo — one of the oldest and largest privately-operated hydroelectric dams in the country — was built to operate this way nearly a century ago. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about sustainability, and Conowingo is way behind the times when compared to many other hydroelectric dams. Frankly, a dam that operates like this would not be built today.

The good news is that naturalizing how water flows from Conowingo can repair downstream habitat while also creating additional revenue opportunities for Exelon through access to renewable energy markets. A healthier Susquehanna River could bring even more benefits such as increased populations of mussels and oysters which help filter pollution from the water.

The nation’s hydroelectric dams are a large and important source of low carbon energy, but their legacy is mixed due to significant impacts on our rivers. Recently, sustainable hydropower projects have proven that investment in modernization can reduce a dam’s impact on the local environment and improve its bottom line. The Conowingo Dam re-licensing process presents a window of opportunity that won’t come again until 2064. Given our state’s proud history as an environmental leader, Maryland and Exelon must work together to ensure Conowingo plays a role in a more sustainable future for our region.

Mark Bryer, Bethesda

The writer is Chesapeake Bay program director for The Nature Conservancy.

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