Why does the Chesapeake Bay Foundation refuse to take seriously the threat posed by the Conowingo Dam's inability to hold back Susquehanna River pollution? With respect to the effect of Susquehanna River pollutants, the bay foundation has taken an inexplicable U-turn in its long-held doctrine regarding pollutants and the Chesapeake.
In August, the U.S. Geological Survey reported last year's Tropical Storm Lee contributed 39 percent of the sediment, 22 percent of the phosphorus and 5 percent of the nitrogen flowing through the Conowingo Dam over the entire previous decade. The report also states that there has been a 55 percent increase in phosphorus loading and 97 percent increase in sediment loading over the last 15 years as the reservoir behind the dam has filled with sediment and lessened the Conowingo's ability to keep pollution out of the bay. Given the heavy rains associated with Hurricane Sandy, we can only assume that the problem with excess sediment and nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay's main stem has gotten worse.
As Maryland has pushed bay clean-up efforts to the county level, the counties have begun to question the cost-effectiveness of a clean-up plan if major storms like Lee and Sandy can undo progress. In Cecil County, where I live, the estimated cost of compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency's pollution diet is $600 million. With such a hefty price tag, the counties deserve to know whether the science used to develop clean-up plans is the most effective available and that their efforts will not be in vain.
To this end, Dorchester County has hired the Baltimore-based law firm Funk and Bolton and authorized it to recruit other rural counties in the effort to "direct attention and, hopefully, resources to address issues that would achieve a meaningful and lasting improvement in the bay water quality."
One would hope that the bay's most prominent watchdog, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, would support a local government effort which demands the best science to clean the bay. Instead, CBF has demonized Funk and Bolton and charged the counties with obstructionism and worse, all while ignoring very real concerns about pollution in the Susquehanna River and the Conowingo Dam's lessening capacity to trap them.
In a November 9 letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker calls the counties' effort "the most serious attack on clean water that we have seen in Maryland, and it threatens to undo the very progress that your administration has worked tirelessly to put in place." The letter accuses Funk and Bolton of "preying on the fear that counties have over how to pay for clean-up efforts."
It is ironic to watch the bay foundation demean the counties' use of lawyers and courts to advance their interests, as it has long used both avenues to advance its agenda. It is also curious to see the foundation downplay the importance of the sediment that threatens to spill over the Conowingo Dam.
In a November 1 press release, bay foundation senior scientist Beth McGee said, "The issue of the Conowingo's capacity to trap pollution in future years during storms is being studied, but that issue is being used as a red herring." To imply that bay pollution from the Susquehanna is a red herring highlights a suspicious shift in bay foundation priorities. I am hopeful that this does not mean that the foundation has abandoned the hope that the main stem of the bay can be restored to full health and will retreat to a focus on the improvement of local tributaries.
The main objective of the EPA's pollution diet is to reduce the bay's sediment, phosphorous and nitrogen loads. Therefore, I am mystified as to why the bay foundation is not concerned about the impact of major storms like Lee and Hurricane Sandy. Instead, the bay foundation has downplayed the impact of major storms. In an October 31 press release, Ms. McGee said, "Last year's storms Irene and Lee significantly increased pollution in the bay, yet this summer's dead zone was the second smallest since record-keeping began in 1985. This is a clear indication that the bay can handle a fall assault." Ms. McGee does not mention that sediment from last year's storms choked the bay oyster crop north of the Bay Bridge. Additionally, this year's rockfish spawn ranked as the lowest in 59 years. To infer that neither oyster mortality nor a poor juvenile rockfish population is a consequence of last year's storms fails to pass the straight face test.
I am concerned that the EPA and bay foundation may not include these spikes in storm related pollution in their bay restoration models, and so are the county officials who have enlisted the aid of Funk and Bolton.
As it stands, pollution continues to flow through the currents of the Susquehanna River. The bay foundation should re-examine its ill-conceived argument that bay clean-up efforts should continue while ignoring or downplaying the Susquehanna's pollutant load and its disastrous effect on the bay.