Don't Mess with Conowingo Until You've Cleaned Up Your Act - Southern Maryland Headline News

Don't Mess with Conowingo Until You've Cleaned Up Your Act

Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton

If I could amend the federal Clean Water Act, I’d include triple penalties for polluters who spend more energy pointing to other polluters than on cleaning up their own mess.

This “we won’t act till they do” dereliction has colossally delayed action to clean up the Chesapeake, and dodging the real issues has become a prime focus of conservative politicians and rural governments in Maryland.

Until someone musters billions of dollars to dredge centuries of sediment from Pennsylvania trapped behind the giant Conowingo Dam, they whine, it makes no sense for them to spend money on their pollution.

Scientifically, this doesn’t hold water. Most of the pollution in Maryland (and Virginia) rivers comes from local sources, not the Susquehanna River; and the polluting sediment that does wash downstream from behind Conowingo in big storms, while significant, is not the bulk of the river’s environmental impact.

But the image of a simple solution upstream that lets folks downstream off the hook is irresistible. Larry Hogan, Republican candidate for governor of Maryland, has embraced the idea, as have several rural counties that have squandered $25,000 each to engage a law firm to lobby for laxer cleanup standards.

So, in the mean and feckless spirit of demagoguery and weaseling our way to a dirtier Bay, and to show how the finger can be pointed in the other direction, I offer Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers some “dump on downstream” talking points:

It’s time we stood up to onerous demands from downstream states whose reckless management will ruin the Chesapeake even if we poured Evian across the Conowingo.

They complain of low crab harvests, even as they catch the pregnant females by the millions before they have a chance to spawn. And how have they responded to oysters reaching an estimated 1 percent of historic levels? Maryland has opened more of the Bay to the most efficient way known of catching the very last oyster: the historically banned practice of power-dredging the public shellfish grounds. This, even as research shows there is no better pollution filter than healthy oyster bars.

Absent an immediate Baywide ban on such egregious fishing, why should Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers place more environmental costs on hardworking folks, especially farmers?

Downstream farmers raise more than half a billion chickens every year on the Delmarva Peninsula and in the Shenandoah Valley. And even after years of debate, and science that shows beyond a doubt there’s way too much poultry manure running into their rivers, they are still “considering” what to do about it.

Is it coincidence that the hotbed of damning Conowingo Dam comes from the Maryland politicians who represent chicken growers? Sure we got a few (zillion) pounds of cow and hog manure up our way — but why should ours stink more than theirs? Let “no poop scooping without reciprocity” be our rallying cry.

Downstreamers fume about sediment coming from Conowingo; yet look at how they have handled their land, from which all sediment comes?

Forests, the land use that is least polluting, that holds the soil in place best, covers close to two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed — and Pennsylvanians are losing it only slowly to development, farming and natural gas wells.

Maryland has cut down more than half of its forests, with Virginia only slightly better on its Bay watershed portions. Both are losing woods more than four times faster than Pennsylvania.

Folks in Penn’s Woods will look more sympathetically upon folks downstream once they do some very serious tree planting.

Downstreamers make much of the fact that about half of the riverflow, and thus nearly half of the waterborne pollution into the Chesapeake, comes via the Susquehanna. Upstreamers believe that means half comes from down there.

The downstream folks worry about sediment, as if they were not adding to the sewage burden on the Bay at a horrendous rate. Upstreamers have 3 million poopers in the watershed. Downstreamers have 13 million — and their numbers are growing four to six times faster than ours.

So before anyone spends money dredging out Conowingo, let’s see something stabilizing, like a “one in, one out” population policy downstream. They can work out the details.

Those 13 million downstreamers burn fossil fuels a lot faster than 3 million upstreamers. In other words, they are more than four times as responsible for the climate change that is dissolving their wetlands as sea level rises and killing Virginia’s eelgrass as the water gets too warm. To see healthy underwater grasses, visit the Susquehanna Flats, just below Conowingo Dam!

To the extent you think the problem’s upstream, don’t send insults — send cleanup money. Because surely as water runs downhill, we’re in this together, 64,000 square miles in six states, all draining one way, to the Chesapeake.

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for the Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service

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