CBC Releases 2016 Annual Report – Program Open Space, Conowingo Dam Among Key Issues

The Chesapeake Bay Commission (CBC) released its annul report for 2016. The report offered a short appraisal of the CBC’s work on Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts in each member state, an assessment on overall Bay restoration progress, and a critique of ongoing challenges. Program Open Space (POS) was highlighted as a key issue in Maryland while the Susquehanna River/Conowingo Dam nutrient and sediment trapping problem was noted as a key challenge.

The CBC is a partnership between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to advise and address issues that affect the entirety of the Chesapeake Bay. Members include legislators and cabinet secretaries from each state, as well as a United States Navy liaison. Each member state is represented among three leadership positions – including a chair and two vice-chairs. Maryland Senator Thomas McLain “Mac” Middleton served as the CBC Chair for 2016. For 2017, Maryland Delegate Tawanna Gaines is serving in a Vice-Chair capacity.

From the report’s summary of CBC activities in Maryland:

With Maryland on-track to meet its 2017 water quality goals under the TMDL, Commission members focused on maintaining that progress by supporting land conservation. Maryland’s Program Open Space (POS) preserves natural areas, protects historic places, and develops parks. Full funding of POS and other land conservation programs is critical to achieving the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement goal to preserve an additional 2 million acres by 2025. Unfortunately, recent state budgets have diverted funding from POS to Maryland’s General Fund.

After working with a broad group of stakeholders, Commission members effectively sponsored legislation to repay $90 million in previous POS diversions. The bill also requires repayment of any future diversions.

In other budget-related matters, the Commission worked to fully fund the state Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund, which supports agricultural and other nonpoint source best management practices, a first in the Fund’s ten-year history.

Despite noting favorable progress on Bay restoration efforts, including having no anoxic (without oxygen) Bay areas for the first time in 30 years, the report stressed that ongoing challenges continue to exist, including population growth, agricultural pollution, and climate change. Also noted was the disappearing capacity of various Susquehanna River dams to trap nutrients and sediment:

But perhaps the largest threat lies in the nutrients and sediment accumulating behind three large hydroelectric dams on the Lower Susquehanna. Each dam has created a giant settling pond upstream, storing sediment and associated nutrients. Over decades, the reservoir behind each dam has filled with this material, first at Safe Harbor, then Holtwood and now Conowingo.

The loss of trapping capacity at Conowingo, the final dam in the sequence, has caused the entire Lower Susquehanna to be in a state of “dynamic equilibrium.” The loads-in now equal the loads-out.

The sediment and phosphorus that previously were trapped are now flowing downstream unimpeded. Therefore, despite reductions upstream, the loads at Conowingo have increased, at least temporarily.

So long as the inputs upstream of the Conowingo Dam continue to decrease, the Susquehanna’s loads to the Bay will ultimately decrease. But this will take expanded efforts, new funding and time. In the meantime, who will take responsibility for the pollutant loads no longer captured by the dam?

Useful Links

CBC 2016 annual report

CBC Website

Senator Middleton Webpage

Delegate Gaines Webpage