The dam…

According to local news reports over the last day or so, the State of Maryland wants the energy company that operates the Conowingo Dam to pick up the tab for cleaning debris that washed down stream into the Chesapeake following two weeks of heavy rains. It’s a fine thing to blame the dam for causing this. The dam, hundreds of feet of concrete 2880px-Conowingo_Dam_and_Power_House,_near_Bel_Air_and_Havre_de_Grace,_Md_(73856)standing astride the Susquehanna is a large and convenient target for the ire of politicians and activists. Blaming the dam, though, misses the point entirely.

Since it was put into service in 1928 the Conowingo bought about 90 years of reduced sediment flowing into the Bay, trapping decades of pollution behind its imposing concrete walls. The fact is that without the dam, every bit of that debris, silt, and chemical contamination would already be laying on the Bay’s floor or washed up on its shores. That’s 90 years’ worth of accumulation versus the two weeks’ worth that was washed through the spill gates last month. Sediment reduction wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye in the 1920s, but it has been a fortunate consequence of having the dam managing water flow downstream to the Bay.

Of course now that the Conowingo pool has reached or at least gotten close to the maximum amount of sediment it can impound upstream we’re seeing debris washed more frequently downstream into the Bay we’re identifying it as an emergency. I’ve been back now seven years and for at least that long the state and federal government have been wringing their hands on this issue without giving any real sense that they have a clue what to do. Even assuming for a moment that they do know what to do, they seem utterly flummoxed by deciding who’s going to pay the bill.

That’s all a long way of saying that I don’t blame the dam. It’s doing exactly what a dam is designed and built to do. I blame generations of regulators, legislators, governors, government officials, and corporate board members who let the situation develop and then fester. I blame the states up stream for not adopting practices and policies that would reduce their impact on the river and Bay.

If you were new to the world of environmental discussions about Chesapeake Bay, you might think the time is now ripe to launch the long needed effort to dredge the sediment impounded behind the Conowingo, haul it away, and prepare the dam for another 90 years of service. Since, of course, this is taking place in my beloved home state of Maryland, though, I know what’s really going to happen is that we’re going to have another blue ribbon panel, commission another study, and call in dozens of experts to tell us that which we already know to be the case.

I’d almost dared to hope that a raft of storm tossed debris driven ashore at the foot of the statehouse might garner some action on getting on with the job that needs doing. Shame on me for being so optimistic in the face of our political masters in Annapolis.

Roll on Columbia…

One of my first jobs after signing on with Uncle’s big green machine took me to a 200 foot tall, 8,835 foot long hydroelectric dam in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re wondering what in the hell, the Army has to do with hydropower, rest assured I was every bit as confused as you are when I showed up. Suffice for now to say it has less to do The Dalles - Overview.JPGwith power generation than it does with navigable waterways, infrastructure development, and having a ready pool of trained engineers available when we went on a national building spree during the Great Depression.

Some dams, I’m thinking about you Grand Coulee and Hoover, are things of beauty in their own right. “My” dam wasn’t what anyone would call pretty. The hulking, squared off mass of concrete, squatted astride the river like the world’s largest cinderblock. It’s real beauty is in the machine itself – it’s 14 General Electric turbines spinning out almost 2 megawatts when they crank the penstocks wide open, the lock that lifts 650 feet worth of barges almost 90 vertical feet , the way the building hums that rises from your feet straight through the top of your head, and the subtle but definite sound of steadily running water when you climb down into the depths of the foundation.

So what’s the point of all this recollection from the Columbia River? Well, as it turns out enough time has passed now that I’m starting to feel just a little bit nostalgic about my time spent on the edge of the high desert. For this son of the east, the Cascades, the Gorge, Portland, it was all a time of being a stranger in a strange land. It was good times, though I was in too much of a hurry to get back east and start my life as a big city DC bureaucrat to realize it then.

I know that still frontier feeling stretch of river is too far from the banks of the Chesapeake for me to ever call it home, but I sure wouldn’t mind passing that way again sometime.