SALISBURY — With counties across the lower shore including Worcester and Wicomico wrestling with state-mandated watershed improvement plans (WIP) and septic system regulations, Wicomico County officials this week heard from a coalition calling for a broader approach to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
On Tuesday, the Wicomico County Council heard a presentation from the Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC), a growing collection of Maryland counties whose goal is to switch the emphasis of saving the Chesapeake Bay from high-cost wasterwater treatment plant improvements and restrictive state mandates on septic systems to what it perceives is the largest contributor to pollution in the bay. According to the CCC, billions of gallons of water flow from one of the most populated corridors in the country through the Susquehanna River and into a virtual stormwater holding pond behind the Conowingo Dam, which leaches millions of pounds of sediment into the upper portion of the bay.
CCC officials told the Wicomico Council on Tuesday the state-mandated WIPs the counties are working on or have already submitted, and the associated septic regulations represent a drop in the bucket compared to the nutrient contributions of the Susquehanna basin on the Chesapeake.
CCC attorney Chip MacLeod showed Wicomico officials pictures of the pollution plume stemming from the Conowingo Dam after a hurricane last year and perhaps more importantly during a non-storm event just two weeks ago. The pictures show a vast plume of sediment stretching from the dam into the north end of the Chesapeake and as far south as the Bay Bridge.
“The days of the Conowingo Dam and reservoir protecting the Chesapeake Bay are over,” he said. “It’s an enormous stormwater pond that has been collecting pollution for 80 years, but it’s full. If we don’t address this problem, everything we do below the bridge is in vain. Everything we do on the Eastern Shore is a waste of time and money.”
The CCC currently includes seven counties across Maryland including several on the Eastern Shore where WIPs and state-mandated septic regulations are deemed to be hurting rural areas the most. Also on hand on Tuesday was Dorchester County Councilman Tom Bradshaw, who told Wicomico officials his county was behind the CCC and its efforts to deflect the blame, and the exorbitant cost, away from the shore counties trying to make a difference and focusing it back on the main culprit to Chesapeake pollution.
“Forty years of money has been spent on cleaning up the bay and we’re not in any better shape than we were and some places are worse,” he said. “We can’t afford another unfunded mandate, especially when the science appears unfounded. When is enough enough? We need to call into question practices that cost us money we don’t have when I’m not even sure we’re getting what we paid for.”
MacLeod was seeking the Wicomico’s support for the CCC and its efforts at the tune of a $25,000 investment. He said the CCC is operating on three basic fronts including helping the member counties get approved WIPs, which Wicomico and Worcester have not submitted. He also said the CCC is intervening on behalf of the member counties on the Conowingo Dam issue. He said the power company that controls the dam, Exelon Energy, is currently in negotiation for a new lease and a window of opportunity to address the sediment issue could close for decades. “It was last licensed in 1980 and it’s up for a license renewal,” he said. “They’re looking for a 40-50 year lease and if we don’t do something now about those sediments, we might not have another chance in a lifetime.”
MacLeod said the CCC’s third pillar is increasing awareness about a more holistic approach for the bay including a change in the agenda the member counties have been forced to follow. He said the coalition is calling for less restrictive regulations on agriculture and farmers, who have borne the brunt of the effort to save the Chesapeake.
“Farmers have been taking their lumps when it comes to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “We think there is a lot to be learned from the farmers because they know what’s working best. Let them tell us how to do it and give them the money to do it.”
Another pillar for the CCC is advancing the restoration of oysters in the Chesapeake. The federal Army Corps of Engineers recently released an oyster restoration plan for the bay, but MacLeod said much of the plan is fundamentally flawed.
“We need to bring back the oyster because it’s the best and cheapest filter for the bay,” he said. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Chesapeake Bay is not suitable for bringing back oysters because of all of the sediment coming out of the Susquehanna. The same goes for restoring submerged aquatic vegetation.”