By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
With the enormous Conowingo Dam as a backdrop, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced on Tuesday that the state will be funding a pilot program that will help determine the options and financial feasibility of dealing with decades of sediment that gathered behind the dam.
“The Conowingo Dam has reached capacity and is no longer able to trap sediment,” the Governor told a group of state officials, elected officials and members of the press in Fisherman’s Park on the Harford side of the Susquehanna River.
“This is a growing threat that must be addressed,” Hogan said, noting that any significant storm event north of the Conowingo Dam can send sediment that has built-up behind the dam cascading over the structure, flooding the lower part of the river and Chesapeake Bay with silt, nitrogen and phosphorous that could quickly undo expensive Bay restoration projects undertaken by the state and counties.
The Governor said that 70% to 80% of the sediment that comes into the Bay because of storms originates in Pennsylvania and New York.
State officials have reviewed responses to their Request For Information query. They were gauging some of the possibilities of handling the sediment. Now, the state is ready to go out with a Request For Proposals (RFP).
Specifically, state officials will be looking for a demonstration project. The RFPs have to be received by the end of August. The Maryland Environmental Service will assess the RFPs to see which one appears to offer the most promising study of sediment removal, handling and reuse of the material pulled from behind the dam.
The demonstration project will work with 25,000 cubic yards of sediment which is scheduled to be removed by March 1.
While the state is funding the pilot project, Hogan said he expects that any large scale project to remove the sediment will be funded through a variety of sources including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pennsylvania, New York, Exelon, Maryland and other stakeholders along the Bay.
“It’s really a joint project,” Hogan said.
The Governor said his goal has been to work with many parties to make sure the health of the Bay is a top priority. Hogan pointed to high levels of state funding committed to the Bay as proof of his goal to improve Bay health.
The efforts are working, he said, noting that the “Chesapeake Bay had the highest score in more than a quarter century” and that there are many more acres of underwater grasses.
Hogan is also the new chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council which includes all of the states bordering the Bay and its tributaries.
If the other states do not do their part in fulfilling their roles in helping to clean the Chesapeake Bay, Hogan said he will work with the Environmental Protection Agency to help get them onboard. When asked, he said filing suit with the State Attorney General versus other states would only be a last resort.
“We’re hoping to get collaboration,” Governor Hogan said.
Prior to making his announcement of the RFP at the Conowingo Dam park, the Governor held a closed-door “Summit” that lasted a little more than a half hour. It included some elected officials.
Hogan arrived in a helicopter and took an aerial tour of the Conowingo Dam area after his closed meeting. He then arrived at the park to address the crowd.
Members of the press were shut-out of the earlier meeting.
Cecil County officials said they knew they were there by invitation, but wondered why the doors were closed, saying nothing of a secret nature was discussed during the meeting which was chaired by the Governor.
County Executive Alan McCarthy said eleven companies had responded to the Request For Information and offered some “good uses for the sediment behind the dam.”
County Councilman Bob Meffley said the challenge will be getting Pennsylvania on board and getting a group to commit to fixing the sediment problem at the dam.
County Councilwoman Jackie Gregory said she is happy to see the state is moving forward in trying to find a solution for the problem.
Among those at the Governor’s event were representatives from the Clean Chesapeake Coalition. This organization is made up of counties, including Cecil, that realized several years ago that the Conowingo Dam is a significant contributor to silt issues and high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay. At first, their efforts were largely ignored by the state and some Bay conservation groups. Now, the Conowingo Dam sediment has become a major focus in state efforts to improve Bay quality.