The opening of hundreds of miles of fish spawning grounds moved a giant step closer to reality with the recent completion of a $12 million 'fish lift' at the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River.
The fish lift, built by dam owner Philadelphia Electric, is the largest of its kind in the United States, with a capacity to pass 750,000 American shad and 5 million river herring per year. Officials from the utility, the federal government and the three Bay states recently gathered to dedicate the lift.
For now, however, the fish will not be released above the dam. Only 14 miles of open water exists between Conowingo and the next dam upstream — Holtwood Dam. So the fish are instead loaded into trucks and hauled beyond Holtwood and two other dams, Safe Harbor and York Haven, all of which are located in the first 80 miles of the Susquehanna and were built in the early 1900s.
"Pennsylvanians look forward to repeating this ceremony at Holtwood Dam, Safe Harbor Dam and York Haven Dam on the Susquehanna River," said Edward Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, at the May 9 dedication.
"It's expected that the entire river will be opened to natural migration by the year 2000," said Frank Bracken, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. Bracken said the opening of the river would boost the upstream sports fishery by $42 million to $185 million annually.
Officials from Pennsylvania and Maryland for years had worked to get a fish passage built at the dam, but the utlility had been slow to act. Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, at the dedication, said the opening of the fish lift marked "a great day" and praised PE for "an entirely new attitude."
For the fish commission the event was particularly significant: The opening of the fish lift comes on its 125th anniversary. The commission was formed in 1866 to manage migratory fish which were being depleted at that time by overfishing and other problems.
The dam, completed in 1928, was the largest single obstruction to fish passage in the Bay watershed, rising some 100 feet above the river. Although it blocked the path for many types of migratory fish, as well as eels, it is most often associated with the demise of the American shad.
For years, the fish commission has operated a shad hatchery upstream, releasing tens of thousands of the fish annually to migrate downstream. A smaller fish lift has operated at the dam since 1972, catching fish to be trucked north beyond the dams.
Water released through the dam attracts American shad and other fish to the new lift as their instinct is to swim against moving water. Once past the entrances to the lift, the fish enter a collection channel. At periodic intervals a gate at the end of the channel closes and moves to crowd fish over a submerged hopper.
The hopper and its contents are then raised to either a sorting tank or an overhead flume which crosses under U.S. Route 1 and exits to Conowingo Pond behind the dam. From the sorting tank, biologists separate American shad from other fishes and load them into tanks to be trucked to suitable spawning habitats above the other dams on the Susquehanna. Other fishes are released.
A second hopper can be added to double the capacity, if needed.
The sorting and trucking will continue until fish passages are completed at the upstream hydroelectric dams.
Officials at the dedication said the opening of the fish lift also marked a new spirit of cooperation between the dam's owner, Philadelphia Electric, and state and federal agencies. For years PE had balked at building a fish passage facility at Conowingo until a management change in the corporation in the late 1980s.
"There was a lengthy period of time — more than a decade — during which widespread cooperation between PE, various governmental agencies, and environmental groups did not exist," PE Chairman Joseph F. Paquette, Jr., acknowledged in remarks at the dedication. "It was very gratifying for me to be in virtually this same spot as I was two years ago as new chairman of PE, for a signing ceremony that closed that separation and brought us together to build this unique facility.
"Today, I believe this $12 million investment by PE represents the fulfillment of a commitment to those federal and state agencies and a clear demonstration of the philosophy of PE management toward a greater concern to the environment and the quality of life in our communities. This new fish lift at Conowingo is the 'signature project' of PE's environmental commitment to the region in which we operate and to the customers we serve."
Many blockages remain in Bay watershed
The 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement committed the Bay states and federal government ³to provide for fish passage at dams, and to remove stream blockages wherever necessary² to restore passage for migratory fish.
While the fish lift at the Conowingo Dam is a major hurdle in opening traditional spawning areas for migratory fish — and many blockages have been removed in both Virginia and Maryland since 1987 — much work remains to fulfill the agreement.
David Whitehurst, chairman of the Bay Program¹s Fish Passage Workgroup, noted in a presentation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission that many obstacles less spectacular than a 100-foot dam — some only a few inches high — block fish passage throughout the watershed.
Common fish blockages, he said, include box culverts for bridges, pipe culverts, stream flow gauging stations and even beaver dams.
In Virginia, about 1,700 blockages have been identified, and Maryland has about 1,400.
And in Pennsylvania, three more large dams must have fish passage devices constructed before fish will be able to freely swim up the Susquehanna, opening some 350 miles of traditional habitat on the river's mainstem alone.
Bay Program offers fish passage fact sheet
A new six-page fact sheet, "Passageways for Migratory Fish," provides an overview of problems, solutions, and the various programs dealing with fish passage in the Bay watershed has been jointly produced by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office.
For a copy, contact the USF&WS, (301) 224-2732.