Susquehanna River named third most endangered river in the country

Raise your hand if you saw this one coming. The Susquehanna River has been named one of most endangered rivers in the country.

American Rivers put the Susky at number three on its 2016 list citing pollution and also operation of the Conowingo Dam.

I’ve written here and here about sediment and runoff issues facing the river and its aquatic life and none of this comes as a surprise to anyone who fishes the 464 mile long river, especially the Lower Susquehanna.

But what American Rivers highlighted in its announcement is the Conowingo Dam and a piece of federal legislation that could impact Maryland’s authority to hold the dam’s operator, Exelon Corporation, accountable.

America’s Most Endangered Rivers is a call to action to save rivers that are at a tipping point,” said American Rivers President Bob Irvin. “We cannot let the hydropower industry avoid its responsibility for protecting the environment at the expense of our fish, wildlife, water quality and outdoor recreation. For the millions who depend on the river and for generations to come, we must act now to save the Susquehanna.”

Current law gives Maryland authority to require Exelon to meet state water quality standards. But House Resolution 8, or the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015, could change that.

American Rivers says the bill would exempt Exelon from meeting water quality standards and would shift responsibility of addressing problems caused by the dam from Exelon to local and state governments. Gov. Larry Hogan, both of Maryland’s Senators and seven of its eight U.S. Representatives also oppose the bill.

One of the big issues is the sediment pond above the dam. Since its construction in 1928, the reservoir on the upstream side of the dam has been trapping sediment and pollutants. Now, after nearly 90 years the reservoir is nearing capacity.

“The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment states the majority of the sediment that enters the bay during storm events originates from the watershed. The impoundment in Conowingo Pond also originates from upstream sources,” said Deena O’Brien of Exelon.

When we get major storms and flooding, strong currents in the river can scour and push that built up sediment through the dam and into the Bay as happened in 2011 following Tropical Storms Lee and Irene.

“The state is committed to addressing the potential environmental damage caused by the Conowingo Dam reaching capacity, and is partnering with the federal government and Exelon to address fish passage and water quality concerns as part of the re-licensing process,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton. “We must evaluate and implement the most cost-effective and efficient strategies if we are to meet our Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement goals.”

All of this comes as Exelon works to receive a new 46-year federal license to operate the dam.

“Conowingo is Maryland’s largest source of renewable electricity. Our goal is to keep Conowingo operating, while continuing to work with key stakeholders to ensure the long-term health of the Lower Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay,” said O’Brien.

* Jeff Herman is the assistant news director at WMAR | ABC2. His main passion while not at work is fishing. This column is part of a series of columns he writes for our outdoors page. You can read more of his columns here. 

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