Dan Rodricks

Rodricks: Humans keep messing up the Chesapeake. Let’s give this job to eels and mussels. | COMMENTARY

At the base of the Conowingo Dam, American eels wriggle out of a net into a bucket.

On Labor Day, I took a boat ride from the Inner Harbor to the cormorant colony on old Fort Carroll, just below the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the middle of the Patapsco River. It was a pleasant experience, and would have been a prideful one for any Baltimorean.

But, as we passed the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in Wagner’s Point, a sneer played upon my lips, and not because of odors. It was the sneer of taxpayer anger. It was the sneer from paying higher municipal fees for antipollution efforts only to learn that they’ve been undermined by the billing agency.


Can’t we do anything right around here?

In case you missed The Sun’s reporting on this, the Patapsco plant and the one in Back River have been illegally dumping millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into the waters that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Apparently this went on daily, without detection, for months because of lousy management and fewer inspections by state regulators.


You might have been under the impression that this was no longer happening because vast improvements have been made. Indeed, the city is under a federal consent decree to stop polluting local tributaries of the bay; the bills we get from the city for drinking water include extra fees toward a $1.6 billion systems upgrade. Says right there on the itemized bill from the Bureau of Revenue Collections: “Infrastructure charge,” and “Bay restoration fee.”

I groan with everyone else, but if it means a better system and cleaner waters, then OK.

However, messing up the works is not OK.

According to records, the city has been discharging water loaded with harmful levels of bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus. Some want to blame the Maryland Department of Environment for not inspecting the operations enough. But I go directly to the source on this; the pollution would not have occurred on such a scale if management was on the ball to begin with.

I am reminded of something Mayor Brandon Scott said last month when I asked what, if anything, surprised him after taking office in December. “How broken city government structures were, even worse than I thought they were,” he said, specifically mentioning the Department of Public Works.

Pardon me while I have an interlude: The Baltimore waterfront is gorgeous. If it’s not the city’s biggest asset, it’s close. I know you know that, but it’s something long-timers take for granted. From the Inner Harbor and Harbor East, past Fells Point and Locust Point, past Canton and Fort McHenry, past the industrial ramparts on both sides of the Patapsco River, it’s the waterfront that most excites the imagination and calls to visitors. It’s a tourist attraction and playground, but still a working port. And while the affluent own, inhabit and make their livelihoods in the properties along the waterfront, the water itself is for everyone — to boat in, to fish in or simply to regard from a bench along the promenade. Swimmable? No, and far from it. But that’s an ambition, and we should be thankful to the vigilant Blue Water Baltimore and other environmental groups for setting goals and keeping watch.

So, yeah, we care about the waters around us. However, the vistas and all the activity are deceiving. The harbor no longer smells “like a billion polecats,” as it did in H.L. Mencken’s 19th Century boyhood, but the waters around us remain troubled. The Chesapeake still suffers from urban and agricultural runoff.

And it’s not so much that we can’t do anything right — there has been a lot of progress on managing wastewater throughout the region — but it always seems like we take one step up, two steps back.


The day The Sun reported on the pollution from the Patapsco and Back River plants came news that hundreds of thousands of eels have made it over the Conowingo Dam to the upper stretches of the Susquehanna River, and I’ll tell you why this is a good thing. It’s something I learned 10 years ago, when the Obama administration released federal money for the removal of old dams on the Patapsco River.

Once dams are removed, American eels are able to swim further upstream and, when they do, they carry with them the larvae of freshwater mussels on their gills. That’s a beautiful symbiosis in nature: When they migrate, American eels give larval mussels a ride.

And, once adults, the mussels clean the water they inhabit. Scientists have found them prolific at filtering out sediment and nutrients that cause algal growth. One adult mussel can filter several gallons of water a day — I’ve seen credible estimates ranging from 10 to 15 — and mussels can do this for decades because they live long lives.

Eels are good at scaling objects but, at 94 feet, the Conowingo Dam is too much for them. So, for the last several years, they’ve been trapped and given a ride upstream of the hydroelectric dam. More than 500,000 of them made it this year, according to MDE and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The state’s agreement with Exelon, the dam’s owner, requires this project and an expansion of it in coming years.

So, there it is: Potentially, millions of mussels will do their thing in the Susquehanna, and clearer, cleaner water will flow over the dam, and downstream into the Chesapeake Bay. Just hope Baltimore doesn’t mess it all up.