Assistant Secretary for the Department of Natural Resources Frank Dawson (left) and Secretary of the Environment Robert Summers talk about the Conowingo Dam with Eastern Shore lawmakers at the delegation meeting on Friday.

ANNAPOLIS - Jay Jacobs, E.J. Pipkin and other members of the Eastern Shore delegation want action on the Conowingo Dam sediment problem. They expressed their disappointment at Friday's Shore delegation meeting with state officials.

“There's been a lot of studies, a lot of meeting, but not a lot of action,” Sen. Pipkin said to Maryland Secretary of the Environment Robert Summers and Frank Dawson, assistant secretary for the Department of Natural Resources.

During his exchange with Pipkin, R-36-Upper Shore, Summers said scientists have been aware of sediment buildup behind it since at least 1972, when Hurricane Agnes hit the Susquehanna Valley and sent a record amount of sediment into the Chesapeake Bay. Every time the dam's floodgates open during a storm, sediment stirred up behind the dam by scouring flows into the bay. It adds onto whatever silt and debris is carried downstream by floodwaters above the dam.

Meanwhile, last week veteran Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-43-Baltimore, was tapped to chair the Chesapeake Bay Commission for 2013.

This legislative advisory group dates to 1980. It has 21 members: legislators, executive appointees and citizens from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It advises the states' legislatures on Chesapeake Bay legislation and management policy.

Jacobs, R-36-Kent, said McIntosh told him she intends to focus on Conowingo Dam sediment at the commission's meetings “as her number-one issue.”

The Susquehanna River hydropower dam opened in 1928 and its impoundment has acted as a silt trap ever since. However, it is filling up and will reach a point sometime after 2025, when the sediments won't settle out any longer.

Jacobs said Tuesday that the Lower Susquehanna Basin Commission sent a representative, and dam owner Exelon Corp. sent some too.

“The Susquehanna commission, they're very frank and honest people,” he said. “Their objective is about quantity, not quality, since there are so many other organizations concerned about clean water.” The commission looks at sustaining the quantity of water in the river for various uses, he said.

“Now Exelon, we grilled those guys pretty good on the debris and sediment,” said Jacobs. Beyond the scoured material that passes floodgates during major storms, “in the spring, and when we get 2- or 3-inch rains, we get a lot of debris.”

Debris like trees, wood, tanks and plastic passes the dam and winds up “in my district,” Jacobs said. Exelon told him “they have some new kind of clam something that would scoop that stuff up, pick it up and put it in containers they get rid of.”

The flotsam and jetsam from hurricanes and large storms routinely destroys crab pots, he said, while all the floating junk affects watermen and recreational boaters.

Jacobs said he's not convinced that Exelon is always accurate about how many floodgates they have open at any given time.

Pipkin questioned whether Pennsylvania is putting as much effort into the sediment problem as Maryland. Summers said the MDE has reached out, and there's a meeting in the spring to focus on issues like sediment. He said the situation has been a concern and has been studied for quite some time.

A task force to focus on the dam formed in 2002, Summers said. Currently, he said, there's a $1.38 million study under way. Scientists are looking at the incoming and outgoing sediment and how management options might improve conditions in the bay.

The state's share is $344,000. Since there have been problems getting federal funding to match state money, Exelon provided funding, he said. The energy corporation is applying for a renewed license to operate its Conowingo hydropower plant. The study concludes in 2014. Summers said the point of the studies is to figure out the best way to clean up pollutants trapped behind the Conowingo Dam. Pipkin said studies have gone on for years while nobody has put any plan in action.

Jacobs is concerned about sediment because it's partly to blame for wiping out the shellfish industry in Kent County.

In the last major storm, he said, 400 million tons of sediment was deposited throughout the upper bay.

“All that scouring ends up in my district. As a result we have no industry anymore. Now if you dive on the Swan Point Bar, it looks like Ocean City beach because of sediment.” The bar, northwest of Rock Hall, was once one of the bay's most productive.

Jacobs said there doesn't seem to by any effort by the DNR and others to restore upper bay shellfishing. Major storm siltation “kills every damn oyster and clam out there and there's nothing [in the state's budget] to restore it.

“You're not going to have recruitment [regrowth on the bar] if all the oysters are buried under sediment. We need power dredging to turn the shell.”

During the Friday meeting, Dawson said the DNR has been working with the industry, allocating funding to help some areas north of the bay bridge. Jacobs, unconvinced, said he knows of a single project in Anne Arundel County waters.

Jacobs said it looks like the DNR is writing off the upper bay and that talk of low salinity is a red herring. “It kind of gets blown off. ... We've lost the natural filter of the bay [oysters], so when all this [sediment] comes over that dam and begins in my district and works its way down the bay, the first line of defense is not there.

“Then you're asking us to pay ... enormous amounts, these cleanup figures. You can't keep talking and not giving.”

As Pipkin urged Summers and Dawson to move forward, he asked Summers how much money a plan would cost to carry out: “You want us to keep telling our citizens to pay up the taxes [for cleaner Chesapeake water]. If you don't fix up the Conowingo, you're tossing the money into the bay.”

Summers said implementing an action plan might cost $14 billion to $17 billion. States have until 2025 to clean up the water. Maryland originally pledged compliance by 2020.

About half of the money is in place from federal and state programs and the MDE has been working with counties to find cost-effective ways to reduce pollution. The so-called “Best Management Practices” are contained in each jurisdiction's Watershed Implementation Plan, Summers said.

The estimate could be cut in half, said Summers, since there are a number of measures to bring the cost down.

Pipkin commented that he is worried about the effect on taxpayers.

“The fact is, there are economy-wide benefits to the bay and water quality. There's just a lot of the Maryland economy riding on a healthy bay,” Summers said, and the costs would probably be spread across the state's entire economy. “All the things we're doing to clean up the bay also protect our fresh water supply, groundwater, – basically our drinking water supply – try to judge the value of that to the economy.”

Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-37B-Talbot, said a letter to the governor to request a formal action plan will be drafted and sent out.

Last fall, the seven-county TMDL Coalition began to draw attention to the enormous quantities of sediment and phosphorus which wash into the upper and middle bay during major storms such as 2011's Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Isabel, and the more recent Hurricane Sandy. The group has been recently recast as the Clean Chesapeake Coalition.

The Star Democrat's Josh Bollinger contributed to this report.

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