New pact de­mands more from Conowingo Dam op­er­a­tor

Cecil Whig - - & - By JANE BELLMYER

jbellmyer@ce­cil­whig.com

— If the Fed­eral En­ergy Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion ap­proves the li­cense for the Conowingo Dam, of­fi­cials from Ex­elon Gen­er­a­tion will have to work harder to help en­dan­gered fish get up the Susque­hanna River.

Sheila Eyler, project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice Mid-At­lantic Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Of­fice, said a new con­tract has been de­signed that would re­quire op­er­a­tors at the dam to do more for the anadro­mous species that need to get to the top of the river to spawn. This in­cludes Amer­i­can shad, ale­white and blue back her­ring and the Amer­i­can eel.

“Like the shad, the her­ring spend most of their life in the river but they ma­ture faster,” Eyler said. “They all spawn in the river like the shad.”

CONOWINGO

But over­fish­ing com­bin­ing with the con­struc­tion of four dams — Holt­wood, Safe Har­bor, York Haven and Conowingo — have blocked these fish from reach­ing spawn­ing grounds in the Susque­hanna River in New York.

Ex­elon op­er­ates a pair of fish lifts at Conowingo that only do half the job FWS re­quires, Eyler said.

“The east lift is not ef­fi­cient. Only 30 to 40 per­cent is moved,” she said.

The west lift is worse, she added. The goal is to meet 85 per­cent dur­ing the new li­cense, which will last for 50 years.

“The hop­per lifts fish to the top of the dam,” Eyler said.

How­ever, since it is not se­lec­tive it car­ries ev­ery fish, not just the tar­get species.

“Part of the im­prove­ments they will have to make is to add an­other hop­per, and add larger ones,” she said.

And a trans­port method that dam of­fi­cials ceased in 1996 will make a re­turn, Eyler said.

“Shad and her­ring have to pass three other dams,” she said. “We know that 40 per­cent is lost at Holt­wood, 20 per­cent at Safe Har­bor and all are lost at York Haven.”

Ac­cord­ing to Deena O’Brien, Mid-At­lantic com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager for Ex­elon, the “trap and trans­port” method was used from 1972 un­til 1996.

“When the vo­li­tional fish pas­sage was com­pleted at all of the hy­dro­elec­tric fa­cil­i­ties on the lower Susque­hanna River, the trap and trans­port pro­gram was dis­con­tin­ued,” she said.

Fish and Wildlife of­fi­cials are re­quir­ing that fish be trucked above York Haven with the hope of cap­tur­ing 55 per­cent of the fish head­ing for spawn­ing grounds. It’s 60 miles over land.

Eyler said Ex­elon also needs to do more to make the fish lifts invit­ing.

“They are com­pet­ing with flows. They have to make it so the fish can find the en­trance,” she said.

Along with the ca­pac­ity, time is an­other fac­tor be­ing con­sid­ered, O’Brien said.

“We will also be re­duc­ing the time it takes to com­plete a sin­gle lift cy­cle,” O’Brien said.

Tag­ging fish by Ex­elon will come at a later date, although Mary­land Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources al­ready does some tag­ging at Conowingo.

Sed­i­ment is an on­go­ing a topic of dis­cus­sion. That’s been a hot but­ton is­sue with leg­is­la­tors, en­gi­neers and con­ser­va­tion groups de­bat­ing the mer­its of dredg­ing be­hind the dam to re­move decades of buildup. A study re­leased a year ago found dredg­ing to be a waste of money. Mean­while, a U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers study in March ruled that nu­tri­ents, not sed­i­ment, is the en­emy.

Eyler said the fish lifts were part of “a whole suite of im­prove­ments” that dam of­fi­cials need to ac­com­plish in or­der to meet spe­cific goals set by FWS.

“Ev­ery five years, we’ll do a study to see how many fish are us­ing the lifts,” she said.

Eyler said the cost to Ex­elon is not among the con­cerns.

“It’s up to them to es­ti­mate the cost,” she said. “We want the fish to pass ef­fi­ciently. We don’t really care if they find a low cost way to do it.”

The new goals and re­quire­ments do not go into ef­fect un­til the new li­cense has been is­sued.

Its li­cense ex­pired in Sept. 2014, but FERC is­sued Ex­elon a tem­po­rary li­cens­ing while the is­sues are sorted out. That tem­po­rary li­cense ex­pired in March, ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can Rivers, a con­ser­va­tion group.

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