Almost four years after agreeing to develop a plan to offset added water pollution caused by the filling of the Conowingo Dam reservoir, leaders of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort have signed off on a strategy.

But it remains unclear how or if the plan will be fully funded, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is holding out the possibility that it could be scrapped.

Conowingo Dam

Conowingo Dam's diminished ability to trap nutrients and sediment coming down the Susquehanna River means greater pollution reductions will be needed to complete cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. 

The strategy would cost at least $53 million a year — and likely much more — to help farmers, mostly in Pennsylvania, place runoff control practices on their land.

Figuring out what to do about the dam has vexed policy makers for years. Sediment and nutrients have been building up behind the 94-foot-high dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, the Bay’s largest tributary, since it was completed in 1928.

In recent years, studies have shown that the reservoir is essentially filled, resulting in more water-fouling sediment and nutrients washing past the dam and reaching the Bay. But that realization came only after 2010, when the EPA assigned nutrient reduction goals to each state required to participate in the Bay cleanup.

In late 2017, leaders of the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program decided that rather than assign responsibility for the added pollution reductions to individual states, it would support the development of a separate Conowingo plan and devise an “innovative” way to pay for it.

The EPA awarded a contract to several groups, led by the nonprofit Center for Watershed Protection, to write the strategy. After exploring options, they concluded the most cost-effective approach was to focus efforts in the Susquehanna basin.

The Conowingo Watershed Implementation Plan, approved in late summer, would focus 90% of its effort in Pennsylvania, with 90% of the nutrient reductions coming from agriculture. Those controls would cost $53 million a year to implement, on top of the estimated cost of existing Bay cleanup plans, with roughly an additional $13 million a year required for additional technical and administrative support.

When agreeing to create the Conowingo plan, states hoped that Exelon Corp., which owns the dam, would foot much of the bill as part of the negotiation for a new license agreement. But Maryland and Exelon have since negotiated an agreement that does not include financing the plan. That means the states — which ultimately are responsible for meeting Bay cleanup goals — would have to come up with the money.

A financing plan developed by the University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability, released in July, called for the states to commit $50 million over several years to support the project. That money, which is less than what is needed to fully implement the plan, would be administered by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to select the most cost-effective projects to meet cleanup goals.

But states have generally balked at committing funds. Dan Nees, a senior fellow at the center and the lead author of the financing strategy, told Bay Program leaders at a Sept. 21 meeting that state officials had deemed a variety of revenue-generation ideas either “not palatable or not possible.”

At that meeting, the EPA warned that if the states don’t find a funding solution, it will likely drop the Conowingo plan and instead just ask the states to do more on their own.

“If we can’t be assured that [dedicated state funding] is going to happen, if the partners don’t agree on that mechanism, then those extra pollutant loads will need to be assigned and addressed in each individual jurisdiction’s WIP,” said Diana Esher, then-acting director of EPA Region III.

Spreading the responsibility among multiple states, though, would likely increase overall costs.

By the end of October, no funding solution had been reached.

Karl Blankenship is editor-at-large of the Bay Journal. You can reach him at kblankenship@bayjournal.com.

(1) comment

guest12

[thumbup][thumbup]. Thanks for such a timely and comprehensive update. This dam is a major source of pollution and debris fouling the Bay. The engineering required is not complicated. Keeping it clear should be built into the annual maintenance cost of the dam and its electrical output easily covers that cost. We are slowly learning to add pollution costs to consumer prices. When that happens market economics will manage the solution long term. Cheap hydro power is only cheap because it is not fully priced.

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