Op-Ed: The Damn Dam & The 1st District Election by Scott Budden

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Anyone who has spent any time on or around the Upper Chesapeake Bay region this year has witnessed the negative effects of record rainfall levels on water quality. Our state, in addition to Pennsylvania, experienced the wettest April-September period since official record keeping began in 1895. With this rain, plumes of sediment, tons of nutrients, record freshwater pulses, and hazardous debris have flowed down the Susquehanna River. Only impeded by the manmade Conowingo Dam and its modern equivalent of a gatekeeper – Exelon Corp.

As an oyster aquaculture farmer, I spend most of my waking hours on the water. 52 weeks a year, five-plus days per week, we toil on both the Chester River and Eastern Bay. We witnessed the effects the wet year had on the Upper Bay first-hand, and it has not been a pretty sight. Our crop has grown at a glacial pace compared to more “normal” growing seasons. The suppressed salinity levels have stymied our harvest and stunted business plans. Alas, this is farming. The more pressing issues, from a citizen-environmentalist perspective though, stem from what we can control as stewards of the Bay.

The problem is multi-dimensional, and there is no easy or cheap solution. It will take serious political will and human effort to improve the situation. First, what flows into the Susquehanna and then into the Bay stems from PA and NY. Changing land use in our northern neighbors has exacerbated the sediment, nutrient, and debris runoff. Increased precipitation scours it and brings it to the Conowingo’s gates. Once a sink for these harmful byproducts, the Dam’s ponds are at capacity. A major storm brings with it, the potential ruin of the Upper Bay.

Which brings us to the second point, which is that the operation of the Dam is the responsibility of Exelon. They did not create the situation behind the Dam nor cause the record rainfall, yet they have control over how it is operated. They can choose to remove the debris and sediment from the ponds, but claim the cost is too high. They can choose to stockpile water and then open gates for weeks, creating artificially depressed salinity levels in the Bay. It is all under the purview of their FERC hydropower license, and as a private business, they choose how to operate. Large man made dams or levees in other regions (e.g., Hoover Dam, Mississippi River) are operated by the Federal Government. As such, regular periodic public comment and input is solicited. Citizen stakeholders have a say in operations, given the downstream externalities. Besides a once-every-30 to 50 years relicensing process, zero input is sought from us. As the ones bearing the full brunt of upriver conditions and the wholly private operation of the Dam, are we OK with this?

The complexity of the issues calls for elected leaders willing to act. Governor Hogan has made them a priority if he wins a 2nd term. I had the privilege of attending a public forum on 10/21 in Easton, between Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD1) and his challengers. They were asked how they plan to improve the Bay. Rep. Harris responded that Exelon did not create the problems that plague the Dam and they will “walk away” from it if forced to pay for its cleanup. While I agree with his first statement, I also believe that Exelon is solely responsible for the Dam’s operation, profits greatly from it, and should be on the hook for some of the cost. He did not address how he has or would pressure the EPA to hold PA accountable to their 2025 pollution goals – on which they are woefully short thus far. He also did not tout any other comprehensive Bay cleanup or environmental legislation he has passed. Exelon donates to Harris’ campaign via a corporate PAC.

His main opponent, Jesse Colvin, does not accept corporate PAC money. In conversations with Jesse, it’s clear that he understands the need to hold PA accountable to their 2025 goals. It is also clear that he will work with the EPA, Gov. Hogan, and Exelon to find pragmatic solutions to the problems. Fully funding the Chesapeake Bay Program (which Harris did, but did not support increasing Bay cleanup funds in the 2018 Farm Bill) is just the beginning for Mr. Colvin. It is a big reason why I support his campaign. An impaired Bay affects us all: rich or poor, young or old. We need leaders who will fight for it. I believe Jesse will.

Scott Budden is president of Orchard Point Oyster Co and sits on the ShoreRivers Chester River Watershed Board, the MD Sea Grant External Advisory Board, and the Steering Committee of The Chesapeake Oyster Alliance

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Letters to Editor

  1. Carla Massoni says:

    Thank you, Scott. Governor Hogan has a partner in Jesse Colvin when it comes to protecting the Chesapeake Bay. This is an issue all voters need to research and use our influence to remedy. Somewhere along the way “corporations” became people, but WE the human variety of people need to step up and make our voices heard. The Bay is not only an environmental resource it is one of our major economic resources too.

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