Ballerinas, Tights, and the Myth of the Conowingo Boogeyman by William Herb


Motherhood, apple pie, and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition! What kind of curmudgeon could possibly find fault with such righteous-sounding institutions? But as Neal Hagburg writes in his song, If it ain’t you: “You ain’t a ballerina just because you like to wear tights when you dance”. Wearing the mantle of a clean Chesapeake doesn’t automatically make you a protector of the Bay.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC), organized in 2012, comprises Caroline, Cecil, Carroll, Dorchester, Kent, and Queen Anne’s Counties. Membership consists entirely of government officials from these six counties. CCC’s stated objective is “to pursue improvements to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most prudent and fiscally responsible manner-through research, coordination, and advocacy.”

I just viewed the latest video produced by the CCC. While I wholeheartedly agree with their purported desire to have a clean Bay, I find that the video is quite misleading, and serves mainly to promote the hidden CCC agenda of reducing pollution-management efforts (but not pollution) in its member counties, while continually raising the specter of the mythical Conowingo Boogeyman. This is “whataboutism” writ environmentally. You know: “Yes, we do pollute our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, but what about (insert Conowingo or your own favorite villain here)?” The parochial CCC view seems to be that preventing pollution locally is a waste of money, but it is money well spent if someone else foots the bill, regardless of culpability.

If the video is to be taken at face value, the only resource in danger in the Bay is the oyster, and watermen who harvest that particular bi-valve are the only stakeholders damaged by the Bay’s condition. Perhaps it is only Commissioner Fithian’s biases speaking. Yet he and the other Kent County Commissioners are willing to spend $25,000 per year of our tax dollars to promote such bogus ideas while, at the same time, proposing to eliminate fines for certain Critical Area violations. A clean Chesapeake, indeed!

The subject video is misleadingly entitled “The Conowingo Factor”, when in fact it should be titled “The Pennsylvania (and maybe New York) Factor”. I will admit that the new title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but accuracy should count for something even in a time when truth isn’t truth. At the very end of the slick propaganda piece, after the talking heads are blessedly silenced, a text box does grudgingly grant that Pennsylvania is not doing enough to clean up the river before it reaches the Bay. Even that admission is prefaced by a cheap shot at Exelon for not taking part in a pilot dredging study begun by Maryland; a study with some promise, but one also fraught with pitfalls.

The Susquehanna River –the main tributary and source of the Chesapeake Bay–runs through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before emptying into the northern, top end of the Chesapeake Bay.     Map courtesy of Bay Journal

Let’s face it. Pennsylvania’s and New York’s contaminants are horrendous problems, and the CCC deserves props for pointing that out, as well as for flagging EPA’s blunder in failing to recognize the future impact of zero sediment trap efficiency of the Conowingo Dam and pond.

On the other hand, review the past tributary and Bay health scorecards and you will see that we residents along the Bay have not covered ourselves in glory when it comes to pollution. The best water in the Bay is just downstream from the mouth of the Susquehanna River. This relatively good quality owes no thanks to efforts by upstream states to cut sediment, nutrients, and other pollution, but rather is a testament to the free remediation that has been provided by the Conowingo Dam and pond for the past 8 decades. It seems that the CCC and many others simply want to disregard this happy coincidence. The power generation facility does not require clean water, but, as a by-product of its design, it has remediated the upstream mess for 80 years at no cost to the upstream polluters or the downstream beneficial users.

The same scorecards will reveal that when the relatively clean water enters the Bay, we Marylanders, including the residents of the six CCC Counties (C4), immediately begin to degrade it, and Virginians and DC residents are no better. Most of the contamination from the C4 is caused by agriculture, which does not have enforceable discharge limits (but which offers the most cost-effective way to reduce sediment and nutrient TMDLs). The Bay score stays low until the waterbody experiences flushing from the ocean via tides. Once again, a free remediation (natural, this time) helps clean up our misdeeds. We are all to blame for the quality of water in the Bay, and it is unconscionable to deflect the blame to others while trying to avoid our own responsibilities.

“The Susquehanna River, the Bay’s largest tributary, carries nutrient and sediment pollution from Pennsylvania and New York. Efforts to curtail a key nutrient, nitrogen, have fallen behind because of lagging cleanup progress in those two states, EPA says.” (Photo with caption from  Bay Journal article June 2016)

There are 3 major contaminants coming down the Susquehanna and all the other Bay tributaries: sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen. These are produced by processes and activities (natural or human) in the watersheds. Human activities predominate as causes of the contamination.

Assuming that cleaning up our own act here in Maryland makes sense, how should we view what is going to be happening in the near future when the Conowingo Dam and pond will no longer trap sediment as they have in the past? Let’s look at energy production as well as sediment and nutrient delivery to the Bay.

It is doubtful that there will be a significant impact on energy production. In a “run of the river” system such as Conowingo, energy production depends on the head (elevation) of water above the turbines, not on the scant amount of water stored behind the dam. Also, as previously noted, nutrients do not affect electricity production. So cleanup of other people’s pollution is not a driving economic factor for the owner and operator of Conowingo or for its customers and shareholders.

A reduction of nutrients in Bay waters will help promote the long-term increase in underwater grasses, which support fish, crabs, and waterfowl. (Photo by Dave Harp,  Courtesy of Bay Journal)

Nitrogen, which should be controlled at its upstream sources, is largely in solution, so the presence of the dam and pond have had no significant impact on delivery to the Bay, and if the dam’s sediment trap efficiency is reduced to zero, that will not change the situation.

Sediment is a huge problem. But the source of the problem is in the production of sediment in Pennsylvania and New York, and not a problem inherent in the dam and pond. The CCC makes much of the highly visible plume of sediment that passed through the dam following Tropical Storm Lee, but they conveniently neglect to mention that that plume would have been there without the dam or even if the dam had the trap efficiency of its heyday. Those extremely fine silts and clays pass through the Conowingo pond and dam like crap through a goose and remain suspended for miles downstream due to basic physics.

CCC also emphasizes the fact that 4 million tons of sediment were scoured out of the pond in Lee, but minimizes the fact that an additional 15 million tons came down from Pennsylvania and New York in the same flood event. They also tend to ignore the fact that 4 million tons of scour restored some of the sediment trapping capacity for future storms.

Phosphorus, which should be controlled at its upstream sources, is carried on the surface of sediments, and will be delivered to the Bay in increasing amounts if nothing happens at the dam. But the impact will look almost exactly like what would happen if no dam were in place at all. During its previous history of free remediation, the Conowingo Dam and pond captured about 40 per cent of the phosphorus coming down the Susquehanna.

The proposed pilot dredging study may provide some useful information. However, there are a number of questions that must be answered before large-scale dredging should be considered as a viable solution. Is there a beneficial use for 280 million tons of sediment contaminated with phosphorus, coal, PCBs, radio-nuclides from Three Mile Island, heavy metals, and other potentially hazardous materials? Is there any place, within practical distance, that will accept the materials? Will any beneficial uses offset the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers estimate of $4 billion for complete dredging?

If these questions can be positively answered, and the cost is considered to be acceptable, the question is: who should pay for the dredging? Is it billed to the potentially responsible parties in Pennsylvania and New York, the beneficiaries of the cleanup in Maryland (including the C4) and Virginia, the Federal Government (good luck taking money from the 1-percenters in the current political climate!), or a corporation whose main environmental crimes seems to be having deep pockets and tone-deaf ears to public sentiment?

The Boogeyman that we really need to address is the reduction of pollution from Pennsylvania and New York. That should be addressed and funded by those states (while we continue to do our share). Perhaps dredging is a viable solution. Perhaps Exelon should be a better corporate citizen. But I do not see where we, the public, should depend upon the largesse of private corporations to take care of what are public problems.

Likewise, I object to my county tax dollars being spent tilting at windmills, especially when CCC can’t even pick the right windmill. Furthermore, I object to my county tax dollars supporting what I consider quasi-extortion in squeezing funding from Exelon through threats from the State of Maryland by Governor Hogan and MDE Secretary Grumbles, aided and abetted by the CCC. And to my everlasting dismay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an organization which I greatly admire, seems quite willing to trade its scientific integrity for a handful of silver.

Well, I guess $172 million a year to the Bay cleanup is quite a few handfuls; at least we know their integrity doesn’t come cheap). Of course, the 35,000 Pennsylvania farms in the Susquehanna basin could contribute about $4,900 each, or each resident of the basin could kick in a paltry $38 to raise the same amount. But it is much more politically expedient to deflect the blame to a corporation.

I can almost see the movie scene in my head. An Exelon executive is waking up one morning and finds a bloodied and beheaded American shad in his bed, along with a note saying: “Nice hydropower license you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

Come to think of it, if the penalty imposed on Exelon for not cleaning up the problems caused by the polluters in Pennsylvania and New York is $172,000,000 per year, perhaps Exelon should consider sending a bill to Maryland and Virginia (maybe Pennsylvania and New York, too) for reimbursement for its gratis efforts over the past 80 years. Fourteen billion dollars would be a tidy sum that could be “donated” to Bay cleanup efforts.

William Herb has B.S. (Forestry) and M.S. degrees (Forest Hydrology) from the Pennsylvania State University and did additional graduate school studies in the Environmental Engineering program at Johns Hopkins. He was a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in College Park and Towson, Maryland, where he specialized in sediment studies, including sediment trap efficiency and sediment production in urbanizing areas. He relocated with the USGS to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and worked on projects characterizing the hydrology and water chemistry in bituminous coal mining areas and statistical hydrology.  He moved on to Texas and supervised a team of about a dozen hydrologists and technicians in extensive hydrologic data-collection programs.

Bill then returned to Maryland as the USGS liaison to the Army Environmental Command (AEC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground.  He managed several divisions within the AEC, and also served as the Chief of the Army’s Northern Regional Environmental Office and the Department of Defense Regional Environmental Coordinator for Federal Region V.  After retirement from the USGS, he joined Booz Allen Hamilton and supported AEC and the Installation Management Command (IMCOM) in managing the testing of Army environmental software and took a lead role in hiring computer scientists and related staff for the newly formed Information Management Division of IMCOM.



Letters to Editor

  1. Capt. Robert Newberry says

    The author of the story, mr. Herb, has credentials and a background that is kind of impressive. On the other hand, some comments that he has made throughout this article are a bit ridiculous. The fact that Waterman only Harvest oysters that are affected by the crud coming out of the Susquehanna is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. How about the white clams, a multimillion-dollar industry that has been wiped out by the freshwater insurgents. How about the razor clams that are also a multimillion-dollar industry that are now suffering. How about the crabs that have moved South because of the sediment filled turbid water. How about the fish that have moved South because of the same situation.

    There seems to be a lot of how abouts from statements mr. Herb has made in this article. Maybe all the moving around that he is done over the years back and forth from different areas has affected his internal compass to recognize exactly where he is and who he is talking about. Also, to have an organization such as the Clean Chesapeake Coalition go to bat for all of us in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties is a good thing. To spend my tax dollars bringing this situation at the Conowingo to light, and to see that I don’t spend my tax dollars in a bad way to support TMDL issues that are not even created by myself is a good thing .

    If they need more of my tax dollars let me know where I can send it. I would think with mr. Herb’s background in hydrology, and his local application of this at APG we would have heard something from him earlier. maybe it’s at internal Compass thing again huh. I think everything that is being done by the CCC is good good good and we need more more more. Keep up the good work guys, and by the ways, I hope mr. Herb likes oysters because more than likely there won’t be any north of the Bay Bridge this year. Hopefully some will make it.

    • William Herb says

      With all due respect to Capt. Newberry, I did not state “The fact that Waterman only Harvest oysters that are affected by the crud coming out of the Susquehanna”, but rather I reflected that the CCC video seemed to recognize oysters and watermen as the only resources and stakeholders affected by the condition of the upper Bay. I understand quite well that there are many other resources and stakeholders with “skin in this game”. I have been speaking on this issue in formal presentations for the past 5 years or so, so I am not some johnny-come-lately to this issue. I have spoken to various fishing clubs, the Chestertown Breakfast Group, and have included the technical portion of the discussion in one of the class segments that I have presented at the Washington College Academy of Lifetime Learning. At last check, my compass seems to be functioning normally.

  2. Frederick S. Patt says

    Mr. Herb is correct in his observation that the CCC exists solely for the purpose of deflecting any responsibility for reducing the pollution load entering the Bay from its member counties, by fostering the incorrect impression that the Conowingo Dam is somehow responsible for the pollution entering the Bay from the Susquehanna River. He also states correctly that the dam has prevented a vast amount of sediment from entering the Bay over its lifetime. Ron Fithian’s prominent role in the CCC’s misinformation campaign ensures that he will not get my vote.
    I am no fan of Exelon, and it would be nice if they would contribute to the Bay cleanup efforts in some way, but their dam is not the problem.

  3. Chris Kayhoe says

    “The Chesapeake Bay Foundation seems quite willing to trade its Scientific Integrity for a handful of silver” or a large Donations. WORDS I AGREE WITH

  4. May Kuroiwa says

    You Can’t Find What You Don’t Test For

    Thank you for pointing out that the sediment sequestered behind the dam is contaminated by “phosphorus, coal, PCBs, radio-nuclides from Three Mile Island, heavy metals, and other potentially hazardous materials”.
    My background is microbiology, I supervised and managed both industrial and research labs for many years before moving 14 years ago to one of the communities immediately downriver from Conowingo Dam, Havre de Grace. I am also a cancer survivor. My city’s drinking water is drawn from the river so I’d like to see the list of contaminants testing called for by the test drilling contract signed by the state of Maryland and the company performing the drilling. I’d also like to know how far down the river the test samples will be drawn during the drilling, and the projections for the seepage or escaped sediments/contaminants “plume” during the actual removal of the accumulated sediments.
    I’m sure people living around the dam in the staging and transport areas who depend on well water would like to see the proposed testing requirements, too, and would probably like to see testing of ground water.
    I’d like to know who, according to the test drilling project and the actual sediment removal project contracts, will be responsible for carrying out and monitoring and reporting the results of these tests; and who will pay for any and all measures needed to rectify and correct any damages or “inconveniences” should the water downstream from the Dam contain any hazardous contaminants as a result of the drillings, whether it be supplying the entire city with bottled water for the duration, decontamination and retooling of our water treatment plant, replacing our water lines and storage towers in case of contamination, etc.
    We have many vulnerable groups in our city: elementary and intermediate and high schools, a hospital, and several elder-care facilities among them, all dependent on the purity of our drinking water.
    Other downstream communities that depend on drinking water from the river would likely also in interested in learning of the rigor of the testing before, during, and after the test drilling, and the that of the testing during the actual (proposed) removal of the sediment, among them Port Deposit, Perryville, and the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

    Any idea who I should bring my concerns to?


  1. […] who previously worked with the U.S. Geological Survey in College Park and Towson. He wrote a Spy article examining the Clean Chesapeake Coalition’s efforts in September […]

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