As we reflect on 2014, we are reminded of how bad news dominates the headlines. Events like the Ebola outbreak, ISIS invasions, lost airplanes and gun-related violence come to mind.
There was also good news. For example, one headline boasted: “The Day We Set the Colorado River Free.”
It is truly remarkable. Under the radar of the troubling news stories, a partnership between the United States and Mexico led to opening the gates of Morelos Dam, located near the Arizona-Mexico border — to re-introduce water into an arid landscape once made up of the last 70 miles of the Colorado River. For the last half a century, the water had been diverted to cities, agriculture and other users.
To be certain, this historic event involved more than just opening a gate. It required collaboration among an international team of public officials, academics, conservationists, scientists and other experts who have spent decades studying the Colorado River’s hydrology, ecology, climate, temperatures, vegetation, soils and wildlife.
This team hoped to duplicate the river’s natural patterns and welcome back wildlife that once thrived in the region when the Colorado flowed all the way to the Gulf of California. They attempted to achieve this by operating the dam in a way which mimicked the river’s pulse flow — heavier than usual waters emerging from springtime rainfall and snow melts.
The pulse flow once transported cottonwood and willow seeds until they settled in to accommodate birds and other wildlife. It also carried water and nutrients key to making the Colorado River delta one of the most productive fisheries in the world.
This event conjured up an article I read about a man named Hickory Edwards. Last summer, Edwards set out on a kayak to retrace the same watery path followed by his Onondaga Nation forefathers. Traveling from Buffalo, N.Y., he crossed into the Susquehanna’s drainage and paddled down the river to the Chesapeake Bay and on to Washington D.C.,
Along the way, Edwards communicated the importance of re-connecting and re-indigenizing our rivers. He expressed these words which resonated with me, saying, “Waterways are the veins of our Mother Earth.”
What happens when veins are blocked? That’s right, death ensues.
In response, partnerships are forming around the country to unclog those veins, including in the Susquehanna River where sediments and pollution have built up behind (clogging) the Conowingo Dam. The Conowingo Dam generates hydroelectric power for the region, furnishing drinking water to Baltimore, welcoming recreation to its reservoir and providing cooling water for the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station.
Since opening in 1928, the Conowingo Dam has accumulated sediments that would have otherwise traveled the last 10 miles of the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake Bay. Some of those sediments are nutrient-rich, natural materials — sand, gravel, boulders and leaf litter – beneficial to river habitats located downstream like the Susquehanna Flats, once an extensive underwater prairie boasting wild celery, pond weed and diverse grasses that supported waterfowl, bass and one of the most impressive shad fisheries on the East Coast.
Other sediments contain polluted runoff from neighborhoods, building sites and farmland located throughout the watershed. Over the years, severe weather events have sent the sediments — good and bad — to wreak havoc on fragile Bay habitats.
Recently, there are signs that the Susquehanna Flats and parts of the bay are rebounding because of a slight reduction in pollution and favorable weather patterns. But the Conowingo’s capacity for storing sediments has greatly diminished. This was the focus of a three-year study conducted by Exelon Corp. as part of an effort to renew the company’s license to operate the dam. An additional study has been commissioned in the absence of solutions for encouraging the flow of good materials while curtailing pollution.
That leads me to wondering whether next year’s headlines will read: “Setting the Susquehanna River Free.” I hope not. Because in the case of the Conowingo, releasing the bad sediments stored behind the dam could significantly harm and even choke out habitats downstream.
A preferred first step is already in motion — reducing the bad sediments that enter the watershed in the first place. This is taking place through local efforts to bolster vegetative buffers along waterways. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency has required the six Chesapeake Bay watershed states to reduce 25 percent of the pollution reaching the Bay by 2025 under the Clean Water Act.
Then there’s the dam. Perhaps we can learn from our peers in Colorado and elsewhere about manipulating water flows in ways that more accurately mimic nature’s rhythms. Incrementally…in tiny steps…we can generate power, restore wildlife habitat and unclog our veins.