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Dams, Rain, Debris and Downstream Effects

Tom Flynn

Exelon Generation, the company that owns Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, was forced to open its flood gates several times last summer after record breaking rainfalls and again in November after even more rains.

They said then the gates would remain open “until further notice.”

And that continues to create problems downstream in Chesapeake Bay, where even in the middle of December crews are still pulling large tree trunks and limbs that were washed through the flood gates out of the water.

Gov. Larry Hogan has demanded that Exelon do more to trap the debris behind the dam, but Deena O’Brien, a company spokeswoman, says Exelon has faced daunting challenges this year.

“We’ve been open about ten times the normal amount in 2018 than we have in years past,” she said. “It’s just been some very strange weather patterns that we’ve been experiencing and seen in 2018.

And despite the criticism the company has received, she says Exelon has removed nearly 4,000 tons of debris from behind the dam this year alone. That’s “more than three times the amount that we do in normal years,” she said.

Unfortunately, O’Brien says, there’s no way they can stop all the debris from coming through the flood gates. And Exelon isn’t causing the problem.

“We’re certainly doing our part,” she insisted. “But again, we feel that placing the responsibility solely on Exelon is very unfair and doesn’t allow the upstream states to bear any responsibility. And we really look at this as solving the problem by addressing pollution at its source.”

In fact, Bay scientists have said that while it is possible to manage sediment behind the dam, it would be more effective to reduce the pollution at its sources in Pennsylvania and New York.  Beth McGee, Director of Science at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says they would like to see “more money going upstream.”

“One of the options that we favor is for Exelon to establish some sort of dedicated funding that could be used upstream in Pennsylvania, New York or even in Maryland to do things that would reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution that we receive,” she said.

And while Exelon and the upstream states look for a way to share the responsibility, waterfront communities and boaters up and down the bay are sharing in the effects.

The Department of Natural Resources reported spending $48,800 to clean up the debris that blanketed the beaches at Sandy Point State Park last August.

Farther down the Bay, Jamey Gonsalves, president of the Bay Ridge Association, said his community spent $20,000 to clean up its beaches.

“We had massive logs and trash everywhere,” he said. “We have about a mile of beaches and this large lake here, and there was debris everywhere.  We’re still cleaning up.”

He says they hauled “about 175 tons of debris” of the beach since last August and added $10,000 to next year’s budget just in case they need to do it all over again.

The deluge of debris also has caused problems for marine businesses, a staple of the Chesapeake region’s economic.

Glen Shaefer, the manager of Anchorage Marina in Baltimore says it has sharply reduced the number of boaters looking to rent slips from him.

“We are a destination marina up here in Baltimore,” he said. “People come up the Chesapeake Bay, they come up the Patapsco River, and they come to Anchorage Marina, and other marinas, and they expect to visit the city. But this year, due to the effects of the debris field floating in the river, and in the bay, and warnings from the Coast Guard about the debris field, in our opinion it has affected our traffic as much as 50 percent."

He says boaters are frustrated because they “thought they finally had some time they could do some boating on the Bay” after a very wet spring.

“And the next thing you know you have the debris coming down from the Conowingo Dam and warnings, and they were afraid to leave the dock.”

For boaters who do leave the dock in the winter—and there are some hardy souls who will do that--Sgt. Ken Layman, of the Maryland Natural Resources Police has some advice.

Reduce your speed, keep a good look out, always wear your life jacket and “be cognizant of the stuff that’s in the water that you don’t see.”

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