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Fix the Conowingo before another Hurricane Agnes hits [Letter]

I read with interest commentator Anirban Basu's article touting what a great asset the Conowingo dam is and how it enhances the lives of all Marylanders ("Support the dam to support Md.," Oct. 13).

My having lived within seven miles of this facility for all of my 72 years means the author is preaching to the choir.

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One point was of particular interest to me, however:

"Perhaps most critically, the dam captures 2 million tons of sediment per year — sediment that would otherwise enter the upper Chesapeake Bay and wreak havoc on its vital ecosystems," Mr. Basu wrote. "It represents the last line of defense against harmful pollutants that would damage a national treasure."

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That is very true, For many years the USDA's department of soil conservation dammed up creeks to serve as soil runoff containment ponds. The purpose was to trap the sediment before it could get downstream to the Chesapeake Bay.

In all cases, these containment ponds have now filled to capacity with sediment, and the former ponds are now just streams again. A good example is Atkinson Lake in Harford County. It was known as Harford Glen and in the late 1950s it was a 14-acre lake. Today it is just a stream filled with sediment from development in the Bel Air area.

When storms drop several inches of rain, none of these sediment control ponds now serve their purpose. They have never been cleaned or dredged so the sediment is just passed straight through to the bay.

Conowingo is at that stage now and has been for a long time. The problem with Conowingo is that it has deep flood gates that are to be opened in times of heavy flooding. Anyone who was around in 1972 remembers well the concerns about the dam's stability. While it held up, the opening of its of the flood gates sent millions of tons of sediment downstream into the Chesapeake Bay. To this day we are still suffering the consequences of the lost bay grasses and vegetation.

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More recently, in 2005, Hurricane Lee came through and also forced the opening of the flood gates. While the damage was not nearly as severe, bay scientists say we dodged a bullet with that one.

Here's my point: Like a coffee cup, the lake behind the Conowingo dam can only hold so much sediment. While the experts can argue the danger posed to the bay, few will argue the cup is not full.

Do we want to take the chance of undoing all of the great strides we have made toward cleaning up the bay in the 40 years since Agnes?

It is time to address this problem in a technical manner and leave politics and special interests groups out of it. Heaven forbid another Agnes comes along with that much flood water. But if it should happen, what we want to see is a lot of people trying to take credit for averting a disaster rather than a bunch of know-it-alls pointing fingers.

Douglas C. Burdette Jr., Aberdeen

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