West and Rhode Riverkeeper

We work with our community to enforce environmental law, to
promote restoration, and to advocate for better environmental policy.
Contact us: 443-758-7797  ♦  PO Box 172, Shady Side, MD 20764

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Executive Council debates whether to deal with toxics in new Bay agreement

By Karl Blankenship, The Bay Journal

December 13, 2013

Next year, 20 years after approving a strategy that called for a Bay “free of toxics,” the Chesapeake Executive Council will consider something else: a Bay agreement free of any reference to toxics.

Controlling toxic pollution has been an issue for the Chesapeake since the EPA released the results of its multi-year Bay study in 1983 that identified toxic pollution as one of the factors in its decline.

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Seven Myths about the Conowingo Dam and its Impact on the Bay

By David Foster

The Chestertown Spy, October 26,2013

The impact of the Conowingo Dam, particularly during storm events, continues to be one of the most serious and contentious issues associated with the clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  Despite the importance of this issue, much of the current debate is founded on mythology:

1)    “Most of our pollution comes from the Conowingo Dam and until we clean that up there is no use in trying to implement other pollution control programs.”

While the Conowingo is a very serious problem and the Susquehanna is the largest single source of nutrients and sediment flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, these are by no means the only problems we face in our waterways.  In fact, most of the pollution in the Chester and Sassafras, particularly on the upper reaches of these rivers, is actually home grown and is generated right here on our farms, lawns and septic systems.

2)    “The fact that Chester River still fails to meet EPA standards even after several years in which farmers have implemented Best Management Practices further proves that the Conowingo is the real source of our problems.”

It is certainly true that most of our farmers are now doing a better job of controlling pollution but we are also dealing with a legacy of nitrogen and phosphorous that was once applied excessively and still remains in the ground water from years ago.   The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that it could take 10 to 30 years of sustained good practices before all of those excess nutrients have been washed out of the ground water and we have overcome this pollution legacy.

3)    “Funk & Bolton and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition are the only organizations trying to stop pollution from the Dam.”

While these organizations have played a valuable role in helping to bring attention to the problems associated with the Conowingo Dam, they are certainly not the only such organizations involved.  The Corps of Engineers; EPA; MDE; DNR; and Michael Helfrick, Riverkeeper on the Lower Susquehanna River and Rich Batuik from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have all been seeking to promote better controls for many years.  Furthermore, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, an organization serving as an umbrella for all the Riverkeepers in the area recently filed a motion to intervene and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also plans to file a motion this month.

4)    “The flood of sediment and nutrients that came down the Susquehanna and through the Conowingo Dam in 2011, following Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, undid all of the work that had been done to clean up the Chesapeake and set us back 100 years.”

Those two storms in 2011 not only brought down a new torrent of mud and trash from New York and Pennsylvania but they scoured out 3 or 4 million tons of the mud that had been accumulating in the reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam during the past several years.  This cloud of sediment could be seen from the Susquehanna to the Potomac immediately after that storm and yet, fortunately, very little of that sediment went up the Chester, the Sassafras or other tributaries of the Chesapeake.  Furthermore, while 2011 was a setback for all of us who care about the Bay, by 2012 the overall index of water quality was even slightly better than it had been back in 2010 before those storms.

5)    “Sediment from the Conowingo destroyed the once thriving oyster industry in the Chesapeake Bay.”


Sediment has certainly been a factor in the destruction of the oyster industry, especially in that portion of the Bay above the Bridge.  However, sediment is only one of many factors and analysis by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point indicates that the most important factors were over-harvesting and disease.  Before these recent storm events the oyster population in the Chesapeake had already declined by 99%.  Furthermore, the heaviest sediment deposits actually occurred north of the traditional oyster beds and many of the oysters killed in the upper Bay during the recent storms were more likely killed by the sudden influx of fresh (non-salty) water rather than by the sediment itself.


6)    “If we can control the Conowingo, then we will not have to implement the TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) and the WIPs (Watershed Implementation Plans).”

The Blueprint for the Chesapeake Bay composed of TMDLs and Watershed Implementation Plans was designed by Federal, State and local agencies to reduce pollution going into the Chesapeake and its tributaries.  The best available models and the most knowledgeable scientists recognize that the pollution; primarily the excess nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment; is created throughout the Chesapeake watershed, including right here on the Eastern Shore.  Consequently, if we are to restore and protect the Chesapeake, all of us will have to continue to do our part.

7)    “The only solution to the Conowingo is to dredge the sediment that has built up behind the Dam.”

The Conowingo Dam and reservoir are currently operated as a “catch and release” facility, trapping nutrients and sediment during times of low flow (when the impact would be comparatively small) only to release them in huge quantities during storm events (when the impacts can be catastrophic).  Somehow we have got to change this process.

While it may be true that some sediment can be removed from behind the dam “for only pennies a pound,” there are approximately 4 billion pounds of sediment that flow into the dam each year.  The 348 billion pounds that have accumulated there over the years since the dam was built in 1928 is roughly the equivalent of 2 million freight cars.  Just to dredge the annual accumulation would cost at least $40 million per year and the cost of transport and disposal would be on top of that.  Therefore, although dredging the sediment may have seemed attractive at first, it is clear that we must begin studying all potential viable alternatives.  A range of potential options include but are not limited to:

a) Dredging, followed by:

i.     Making marketable products from the dredged material, if possible, and/or

ii.     Transporting and disposing of non-marketable material in abandoned mines or by creating new islands in the Chesapeake Bay or in the Atlantic;

b) Sediment-bypassing, so that the reservoir would operate in “steady state” allowing the daily load of sediment and nutrients that flows down the Susquehanna to be dispersed daily rather than filling up the reservoir (only to be scoured out during storms) and reserving space for some form of “catch and hold” for the storm events;

c) Sluicing the sand and gravel through the dam on a regular basis into areas of the bay where it is needed while reserving storage space within the reservoir for trapping the fine particles that are so damaging;

d) Sediment-fixing, so that the sediment (and nutrients attached to it) would be stabilized and/or capped so that it is less susceptible to scouring during storms;

e) Modifying dam operations (including operating gates in advance of and during storms), in a manner designed to minimize scouring during storms; and

f) Any other potentially viable option that the creative readers of this article can propose.

Anyone interested in continuing this discussion or in developing additional options of their own is encouraged to forward comments to David Foster at the following address:


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Jeff Holland leaving museum post to run West/Rhode Riverkeeper Inc.

Photo of Jeff Holland.  By Joshua McKerrow (Capital Staff)

A favorite memory for Jeff Holland:

An afternoon canoe trip with his wife, years ago. They pushed off into the Rhode River, paddled among its tiny islands, beside the diving ducks, beneath the flying geese. All that nature — looking exactly as it appeared centuries ago — seemed theirs alone.

“It was just a magical experience,” Holland said. “I want everybody to have that.”

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Clean Air Act Also Reduces Nitrogen Pollution to the Chesapeake Bay

Azocleantech.com, No Author

November 5, 2013

A new study shows that the reduction of pollution emissions from power plants in the mid-Atlantic is making an impact on the quality of the water that ends up in the Chesapeake Bay. The study by scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science confirms that as the amount of emissions of nitrogen oxide from coal-fired power plants declined in response to the Clean Air Act, the amount of nitrogen pollution found in the waterways of forested areas in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia fell as well.

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Wood chips could help cleanse farm field run-off

October 22, 2013

Cornell hydrologist Todd Walter and his colleagues Larry Geohring and Tammo Steenhuis may have found a simple solution to a complex pollution problem caused by agricultural run-off: wood chips.

By strategically placing organic matter to stanchion the water flow between farmers’ fields and nearby ditches and streams, he hopes to trigger a natural chemical reaction in which bacteria capture nitrogen in the run-off and help transform it into less dangerous gaseous forms.

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Striped bass reproduction improves from record low of 2012

By Karl Blankenship, Bay Journal
October 20, 2013

Striped bass reproduction in Maryland rebounded from last year’s record-low spawning index in the state, though it remained below the long-term average, biologists reported. The news was slightly better in Virginia, where biologists found that reproduction was about average.

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Maryland officials mark progress toward restoring oyster population

By E.B. FURGURSON III, The Capital

October 13, 2013 12:00 am

Maryland officials are heralding progress on the state’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan, emphasizing record oyster spat production in the last year.

“Four years ago, we proposed a bold plan with better choices to rebuild our oyster population, its vital ecological functions and the thriving industry it once supported,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said Friday at an event at the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

“Today we celebrate significant progress under every step of our 10-point plan and the many partners responsible for it,” O’Malley said.

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Anne Arundel moves to improve small scale water access


October 11, 2013

When it comes to helping the public to access the Chesapeake Bay and local waterways, Rick Anthony is considering many approaches, including “low-hanging fruit.”

For the Anne Arundel County recreation and parks director, that means making small-scale improvements at county parks on the water.

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Maryland oyster population rebounds in latest DNR study

By E.B. FURGURSON III, The Capital
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The annual Maryland Department of Natural Resources oyster survey shows growing numbers of oysters for the second year in a row and the highest count since 1999.

A high count of young oysters bodes well for harvests in the next couple of years, unless drought conditions spark a resurgence of disease.

The big news is the jump in oyster spat, young oysters of 1 inch or less. The count was three times the 28-year average and the sixth highest since 1985. It was the second consecutive year the spat number was up.

The 2012 Spatfall Index was 60 spat per bushel, a threefold increase over the 28-year-median. The calculation is based on the number of spat found per bushel dredged up in the study.

That means a there is a potential for a more abundant crop of oysters in a couple of years as those oysters mature.

“It’s almost all good news,” said Michael Naylor, the DNR’s shellfish program director. “It’s all relative considering the situation we are in since the big die-off (when diseases ravaged the oyster in the 1980s), but we are encouraged by what we are seeing.”

The annual oyster population report comes from data gathered over two months in the fall across 262 oyster beds throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Preliminary results were released in April; the full report was released Friday.

Four major factors are included in the study and report: The Oyster Spat Index, oyster disease measurement, the mortality rate of young oysters and a biomass index measuring the number and weight of oysters sampled.

There are two primary forms of oyster disease that have walloped the oyster population in the bay, MSX and Dermo.

Dermo was below the average prevalence for the ninth year in a row, but levels jumped from a 22-year record low in 2011. Both the prevalence of the disease and its strength were up. Most of the Dermo was in southern bay waters.

With overall lower disease rates, oyster mortality — the percentage of dead oysters per sample — was the lowest since 1985. Only 7 percent of oysters on the 43 bars were dead, compared to the worst disease year, 2002, left 58 percent of the oysters dead.

Though the study points to an slightly improved picture for Maryland’s watermen, there was good news last year. The commercial harvest grew by 10 percent to 137,000 bushels. Some 20 million bushels were taken per year at the industry’s peak in the 1880s.

But many watermen are miffed the state restricted their public harvest areas.

“They took 10,000 acres of our best bottom,” said Talbot County waterman Bunky Chance of the Maryland Oystermen Association. “Our harvest was up because we have been working what’s left. They took the steak of the table and left us the gristle. But now that gristle has turned to T-bone steak.”

The good news could be reversed by a drought which would boost salinity in bay waters.

“Drought conditions could trigger lethality. All oysters have the disease but they are surviving it in these conditions,” Naylor said. “But with the next serious drought many people, including watermen, will be holding their breath.”

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Gov. O’Malley recognizes Maryland horse farms for stewardship

By Whitney Pipkin, Bay Journal

August 19, 2013

Horses are a growing part of the Bay watershed’s agricultural landscape and a key component of any efforts to reduce water pollution coming from farms, as I wrote about in April. In Maryland, the horse industry is making a concerted effort to recognize horse farms that are stepping up conservation efforts on their land in hopes that others will follow suit.

And now the governor is recognizing those efforts as well. Gov. Martin O’Malley recently sent letters to 11 horse farms congratulating them on their participation in the Farm Certification and Assessment Program, developed in 2010 to acknowledge farmers who are good stewards of their natural resources.


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