Conowingo Dam to Get Separate Nutrient Targets But Who Pays Remains Up in the Air

Maryland Reporter article (2018-04-12) reported that the Conowingo Dam will be getting its own nutrient reduction targets under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP). The Dam and its reservoir on the Susquehanna River has reached its capacity to trap nutrients and sediment and during major storm events can release significant pollution that disrupts efforts underway further down the main stem of the Bay and some of its tributaries.

Earlier WIPs assumed that the Dam’s nutrient and sediment trapping capacity remained intact but after research showed that the trapping capacity had been exhausted, the Bay watershed states were left with an unanticipated new source of water pollution that has to be addressed. The Dam’s pollution is estimated to generate 6 million pounds of nitrogen and 260,000 pounds of phosphorus annually that now must be offset. In response, the Dam will now have its own Phase III WIP goals, similar to those of each Bay watershed state. From the article:

The Conowingo plan will identify nutrient reduction efforts that go “above and beyond” those in the state plans. The rationale for the shared plan, [Maryland Department of the Environment Water and Science Administration Director Lee] Currey said, is that Bay-wide water quality benefited when Conowingo was trapping nutrients, effectively lessening the amount of cleanup work each state had to do. Now that those nutrients are being washed downstream, all of the jurisdictions should pool their resources and work together to offset their impact.

The article explained that the actual implementation of nutrient control actions will be focused on those areas that will have the maximum effect in offsetting the Dam’s pollution – mainly parts of Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. This approach is more cost effective than requiring all parts of the Bay watershed to share the Conowingo’s load equally. However, this approach leads to a secondary question – who will pay for all of this?

The cost to offset the Conowingo’s pollution load is expected to cost many millions of dollars and the article states that Exelon, the dam’s owner, will be expected to contribute a reasonable portion of the funding but it is unlikely that the company can afford all of the costs. Maryland has significant power over how much Exelon will pay as Exelon requires the State’s approval as part of its relicensing process under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Maryland Department of the Environment will make a final decision on its re-certification decision (along with conditions such as a funding requirement) in mid-May. From the article:

“Once we know how much additional capital results from [the Conowingo certification], there may be a gap,” Currey said. “Then the question is, ‘How do we best close that gap?’”

To help answer that question, the EPA will soon seek a third-party contractor to manage the implementation of the Conowingo WIP. That includes identifying where pollution control practices can be implemented most cost-effectively and overseeing pooled money to implement the plan.

But a major part of the job will be identifying sources of money that could help plug any funding gap. Options could range from finding previously untapped sources of federal funding to testing new types of public-private partnerships that could bring more nongovernmental money to the effort.

The article also discussed how the United States Environmental Protection Agency would hold Bay watershed states accountable if the Conowingo Dam fails to meet its nutrient reduction targets. A draft version of the Conowingo plan will be available for public comment in early 2019.

Useful Links

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of Conowingo Dam