ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WMAR) — On any given day, you can find lots of bird watchers and fishermen out at the Conowingo Dam, taking in all that nature has to offer. A serene place to escape.
"This is where I come to fish. Been fishing here since I was about 8," said Steven.
"Lots of wildlife. A lot of empty bottles to catch," said Sherman.
But you can also find lots of pollution and debris. For decades, the dam has trapped trash from upstream. Now that the reservoir is full, it can no longer stop pollution from entering the bay.
A settlement Governor Larry Hogan announced Tuesday between the Maryland Department of the Environment and the dam's operator Exelon signals a change.
"This is really a critical chapter in the Chesapeake Bay," said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.
In order to get a new license to operate the dam for 50 more years, Exelon has agreed to invest more than $200 million to enhance restoration and environmental projects to improve water quality in the Lower Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.
"We’ve been fighting for years over how to improve the stewardship of the Conowingo Dam and the Susquehanna River," said Grumbles. "This is a huge boost for the health of the river itself. There’s over $50 million that Exelon will be investing in managing the flow of the river."
The agreement also includes:
$47 million for climate resiliency projects, including submerged aquatic vegetation, clams, oysters, and restoration of living shorelines.
$41 million to significantly increase efforts to remove trash and debris flowing down the Susquehanna River.
$25 million for an unprecedented initiative to restore a healthy population of water-filtering mussels in the Susquehanna River, including contribution of land for the construction of a 40,000 square foot, state-of-the-art hatchery.
$19 million for other projects to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, including agricultural projects such as cover crops and forest buffers.
$12 million to support MDE and the Department of Natural Resources in overseeing and implementing the agreement.
$11 million—over and above the commitments already made by Exelon in its 2016 settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—to make upgrades and operational changes to improve the passage of migrating fish and eels.
$5 million to conduct chlorophyll A monitoring and reporting.
$1 million for eel-related research and projects.
$500,000 to fund a study of dredged material management options.
Elements of the agreement have to still be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of the licensing renewal for the dam.
The agreement ends the legal battle over the environmental impacts of the dam.
"Governor Hogan issued a water quality certification with very strong conditions in 2018 that required Exelon to significantly invest in the health of the river and bay and improved operation of the damn. Exelon sued the state and the Department of the Environment so we’ve been working over the last year and a half to ensure we had a very strong agreement that was a win for the environment and the economy," said Grumbles.
“Our administration has committed an historic $5 billion toward wide-ranging bay initiatives and taken bold and aggressive steps to address the challenges posed by pollution, sediment, and debris at the Conowingo Dam,” said Governor Hogan. “This settlement is a significant and positive step in the right direction, and with the cooperation of Exelon and upstream states, we can continue making progress in our efforts to preserve and protect this great national treasure.”
The settlement builds on commitments Exelon has previously made to improve environmental and recreational conditions at and around the dam.
In 2016, Exelon entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement critical improvements to the fish passage facilities at the dam, which Exelon estimates will require investments exceeding $300 million. Exelon also estimates that it will invest more than $120 million to make enhancements to recreational sites, including dredging of Broad Creek, Conowingo Creek, Peters Creek, and Glen Cove Marina.
The Hogan administration’s holistic strategy includes conditions relating to the proposed re-licensing of the dam, a pilot project on beneficial reuse of dredged material, and an unprecedented, multi-state Watershed Implementation Plan specifically for the effects of upstream discharges and the lost trapping capacity of the Conowingo Dam on Chesapeake Bay restoration.