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Water flows through Conowingo Dam, a hydroelectric dam spanning the lower Susquehanna River. The dam's owner has pledged to spend $200 million to address environmental concerns.
Water flows through Conowingo Dam, a hydroelectric dam spanning the lower Susquehanna River. The dam's owner has pledged to spend $200 million to address environmental concerns. (Steve Ruark)

Since he first ran for governor, Larry Hogan has pointed to the growing levels of sediment trapped behind the Conowingo Dam as an urgent pollution problem for the Chesapeake Bay. This week, he announced a $200 million settlement with a subsidiary of the hydroelectric power facility’s owner, Chicago-based Exelon Corp., to take measures intended to protect and restore the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay. And while the deal could prove helpful to that cause, a mere $500,000 is set aside to address those millions of tons of silt and sediment (the money would be used to study how to best manage any dredged material). It’s one reason why one of Maryland’s leading voices on this issue, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, believes the proposed settlement “falls short” of expectations.

Make no mistake, any money Exelon spends on such efforts as preparing for the effects of climate change downstream and better managing water flow into the Upper Bay to protect aquatic life and the local ecosystems or to intercept trash and debris flowing down the Susquehanna would be welcome given the company pays nothing toward such projects now. So are the agreement’s proposed investments in cover crops and stream buffers as well as restoring river mussels, filter-feeders that can actually help improve water quality. The governor’s years-long effort to squeeze Exelon over a 50-year renewal of its operating permit was a once-in-two-generation opportunity. Was the equivalent of $4 million per year the best that could be done? One 2018 study suggested a realistic ask was in the range of $27 million and $44 million per year, or about 10 times what the settlement promises. The issue deserves to be explored further before authorities sign off on the agreement.

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DARLINGTON, Md., Aug. 8, 2019 -- Governor Larry Hogan makes an announcement regarding sediment issues at the Conowingo Dam following the second Conowingo Dam Summit.
DARLINGTON, Md., Aug. 8, 2019 -- Governor Larry Hogan makes an announcement regarding sediment issues at the Conowingo Dam following the second Conowingo Dam Summit. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

We would be hard pressed to count the number of times Mr. Hogan has spoken out about the need to dredge the dam, which has the effect of trapping sediments that flow down the river from Pennsylvania and New York. More than two years ago, he authorized a pilot project to explore whether such dredging at Conowingo would be worthwhile. At the time, many environmentalists cautioned that dredging would not be a cure-all for the bay’s environmental woes and that the money might be more effectively used at addressing the sources of sediment and excess nutrients upstream. The Exelon settlement would seem to acknowledge that uncertainty continues to exist. Would it be cost effective and what would be done with the resulting spoil? Those are questions that have yet to be answered.

There are also lingering doubts about whether the agreement can be enforced and whether it’s prudent to put Exelon’s payments into the state’s Clean Water Fund, given that the money might then be used for other purposes. As Waterkeepers Chesapeake Executive Director Betsy Nicholas, also a critic of the deal, recently pointed out, about 78 percent of the Clean Water Fund went to salaries and wages as of Fiscal 2017. That doesn’t give confidence that the money will be used efficiently. Also, will there be a timetable for these various projects? Once the agreement is approved and the operating license renewed, does Maryland even have much authority over Exelon if the company fails to come through on its promises? Would federal authorities take action? Private parties do not appear to have standing in the matter.

The governor is big on using the public’s money effectively (that Exelon’s contributions are likely to come from ratepayers, not taxpayers, of course). But the question is this: Does the settlement represent the most cost effective way to restore the Chesapeake Bay? We have our doubts given that $25 million is set aside to restore freshwater mussels and another $52 million is to better regulate water flow, neither of which is likely to make a big difference downstream. Even the $41 million for removing trash and debris doesn’t really get to the bay’s most daunting pollution problem, excess nutrients from sources like stormwater and runoff from upland farm fields.

We look forward to hearing answers to these questions. Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is an enormous challenge. And while $200 million sounds like a major catch, stretched over 50 years it’s not exactly a trophy striped bass. It’s more like a small school of menhaden. Maryland now pays about $22 million each year to encourage farmers to plant cover crops, which is more than five times as much as the $4 million-per-year return it will get from Exelon. That doesn’t make the agreement bad, it just makes it underwhelming.

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