The Susquehanna River is a vital resource and economic engine for communities, and a major influence on the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna is threatened by pollution, but is also imperiled by the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam, which alters river flow, blocks fish and impacts water quality. The Exelon Corporation is seeking to renew its federal license to operate Conowingo, and Maryland has the authority to require that the dam meet state water quality standards before a new license can be issued. However, a bill pending in Congress, H.R. 8, would take away Maryland’s authority to hold Exelon accountable for pollution, putting the Susquehanna River further at risk.
About The River
The Susquehanna River is one of the longest rivers in America, flowing 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York to Havre De Grace, Maryland and draining more than 27,000 square miles (including roughly half of the state of Pennsylvania). It provides drinking water for more than six million people and is one of the nation’s best smallmouth bass fisheries.
The Susquehanna is also popular with local residents and tourists who fish, kayak, canoe or boat on the river for recreation.
The Susquehanna delivers more than half of the freshwater flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. The river contributes 41 percent of the bay’s nitrogen, 25 percent of its phosphorus and 27 percent of its sediment load. These pollutants, which harm the river and the bay, come from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural, urban and suburban runoff, and other sources of pollution throughout the Susquehanna River watershed.
Since its construction in 1928, Conowingo Dam has been trapping these pollutants in the reservoir behind the structure. Today, scientists warn that the reservoir is essentially full, and the dam’s long-term ability to trap pollutants is all but gone. During large storms, strong river currents can scour sediment from the reservoir, sending additional pollution downstream into the river and the bay.
The renewal of the federal license for Conowingo Dam represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the health of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay, but that opportunity could be lost.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, Exelon must prove to the Maryland Department of the Environment that its dam will comply with water quality standards before the state will issue a water quality certification.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the federal agency that regulates hydropower projects, cannot issue a long-term (40–50 year) operating license to Exelon without certification from Maryland. This ensures that as pollution from the Conowingo Reservoir is discharged downstream and harms water quality, Exelon is responsible for addressing its share of the problem.
However, the National Hydropower Association, a coalition that includes Exelon Corporation, is pushing legislation in Congress that would place the interests of hydropower dam owners over the public interest in protecting fish, wildlife, outdoor recreation, water quality and public lands. The bill (H.R. 8) allows Exelon and FERC to avoid Maryland’s authority under the Clean Water Act. If enacted, Maryland’s actions to require Exelon to improve water quality would be in jeopardy.
Maryland, along with several other states, more than 200 conservation and recreation organizations, Native American tribes and the Obama Administration all strongly opposed this legislation’s hydropower provisions, because of its implications across the country. In fact, several members of the Maryland delegation offered an amendment to H.R. 8 to preserve Maryland’s authority to protect the Susquehanna, but that amendment was blocked by the hydropower industry’s allies in Congress without even coming to a vote. If H.R. 8 becomes law, every hydropower dam in the country will be able to avoid compliance with bedrock environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act. Nonetheless, the bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now pending in the Senate.
What Must Be Done
The Susquehanna River is critical to the Chesapeake Bay and the residents of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and beyond. There are many sources of pollution into the Susquehanna River and the bay, and the river is in peril. State and local governments, along with many organizations and citizens, are working hard to repair the river’s health and are making progress.
To continue to prioritize the health of the Susquehanna, three things need to happen:
- Senate must not pass H.R. 8 or any similar legislation
However, if it passes the Senate, President Obama must keep his promise to veto the bill. H.R. 8 undermines states’ authority as well as the progress of local communities to improve the river and the bay’s water quality. If the bill becomes law, Exelon would be able to avoid complying with water quality standards and the responsibility for addressing an inefficient dam’s impacts would fall to the bay’s municipalities, farmers and citizens.
- Hold Exelon Responsible
Maryland must hold Exelon responsible for reducing the risk of sediment and nutrient pollution releases, and for improving passage for migratory fish. The company is profiting from their exclusive use of the river and should invest some of their revenue in these important upgrades to Conowingo Dam.
- Reduce Pollution
Bay partners must continue their important work to reduce pollution in local waterways.
We cannot let the hydropower industry avoid accountability at the expense of our fish, wildlife, water quality, public lands and outdoor recreation. For the millions who depend on the river and for generations to come — we must act now to save the mighty Susquehanna.
Want to learn more about America’s Most Endangered Rivers? Find out about the other rivers listed as for 2016 by checking out the full report.
America’s Most Endangered Rivers® is sponsored in part by The Orvis Company.