A peregrine falcon flies from its nest at the Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station, or Conowingo Dam, in Conowingo, Maryland, on March 11, 2015. The dam sits across the lower Susquehanna River, about ten miles from where the waterway meets the Chesapeake Bay.
Just below the dam is an area well-known for bird-watching—most famously for bald eagles and great blue herons, drawn there by the high availability of fish around the dam’s outflow. Also known to frequent the site are peregrine falcons, whose preference for hunting by diving leads them to nest high on natural and man-made structures, like the nearly-100-foot-tall Conowingo Dam. Highly territorial, only one to two birds typically nest at the site at a time.
Although peregrines can be found on every continent except Antarctica, the falcons are uncommon in many parts of their historic range: in the mid-20th century, widespread pesticide use led to a drastic decline in peregrine falcon populations. By 1964, nesting peregrines were extinct in the eastern United States.
In 1979, a recovery plan was established to restore breeding peregrines to the eastern U.S. Through the program, 174 pairs of nesting peregrine falcons were established by 1997, with at least 27 pairs originating from the Chesapeake Bay region. By 1999, the peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species List—and in the years since, the Chesapeake Bay has reestablished itself as an important region for nesting and migrating peregrines.
Peregrines in the Chesapeake region are perhaps best-known for their tendency to nest on man-made structures: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Francis Scott Key Bridge, as well as skyscrapers in downtown Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg and other cities. Each spring, the Chesapeake Conservancy streams live video of a pair of peregrine falcons nesting on Baltimore’s Transamerica Building. Last year, peregrines “Boh” and “Barb” raised three young falcons at the site.
Learn more about the peregrine falcon.
Image by Will Parson
American shad larvae start to hatch from eggs collected from the Potomac River at the Van Dyke Research Station for Anadromous Fishes in Port Royal, Pennsylvania. Anadromous fish, like shad, live their adult lives in the ocean, but migrate back to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.
Shad are an iconic species of the Chesapeake Bay region, but a combination of pollution, overfishing and the blocking of their migratory paths has led to a decline in their populations. To help boost shad numbers, federal, state and tribal governments have raised young shad in hatcheries and released them in rivers across the region.
But in order to sustain a stable population, shad need to be able to reproduce for themselves. As migratory fish, they require clear passage from the ocean to where they spawn in the Chesapeake’s freshwater tributaries, but barriers such as dams and culverts block waterways and separate shad from their spawning areas. The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Fish Passage Workgroup works with state agencies, local governments and nonprofits to remove these barriers where possible.
There are some places where barriers can’t be removed, such as the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, so the dam’s owner, Exelon Corporation, built a fish lift to help transport shad upstream. Unfortunately, despite some early success with the lift—transporting as many as 193,000 shad in 2001—annual catches have been steadily declining, with only 8,341 shad transported in 2015.
In an attempt to increase those numbers, in April 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a 50-year agreement with Exelon to help American shad migrate up the Susquehanna River to spawn. Exelon agreed to make structural changes, including improvements to the fish lift, to help attract shad to the lift and create enough room so they aren’t crowded out by other fish. The company also pledged to truck up to 100,000 shad upstream.
Learn more about the important role shad play in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the work being done to restore them.
Image by Will Parson
Flying low over the Chesapeake Bay, it’s not actually the water that draws your attention—except for the sporadic glint of sunlight reflected off of its calm surface. Instead, it’s the patchwork landscape and the rate at which a quiet farm field gives way to grids of streets or wriggling stretches of wetlands.
And there’s another reason to pay attention to all that land: because the Chesapeake Bay is so shallow—its average depth is just 21 feet—and because so much land area feeds into it, the health of the Bay depends greatly on how the land is treated.
With the support of a volunteer pilot from the nonprofit organization LightHawk, we took a look around the northern edges of the Chesapeake Bay to see some of the ways the land has been shaped by the people living there.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Photographs and text by Will Parson
Reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed could ease the environmental effects of an essentially full reservoir behind Conowingo Dam, according to a final report from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team released today.
For decades, the reservoir behind Conowingo Dam—as well as those behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams—has trapped particles of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River, along with the nutrients that are often attached. But a draft report from the LSRWA team released in November 2014 indicated this reservoir is full—and the final report upholds these findings: no substantial changes were made to the findings or recommendations of the report between the draft and final phases.
According to the report, the reservoir is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The report indicates that reducing pollution loads, particularly nutrients, upstream of the dam would provide a more effective solution than various strategies for managing sediment at the dam itself, such as dredging or bypassing.
In 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was established to reduce nutrient and sediment loads across the watershed. Bay jurisdictions—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—and federal agencies are currently in the process of submitting draft two-year water quality goals, or milestones, to achieve the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reduction goals of the TMDL.
The final report is available on the LSRWA website.
Sediment building up behind Conowingo Dam has almost reached the reservoir’s capacity for storage, according to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The reservoir is considered at its limit for holding sediment when it is half full—at present, it is 92 percent of the way toward this maximum.
Since its construction in 1929, the Conowingo reservoir, along with the reservoirs behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams, has trapped sediment and nutrients as they flow down the Susquehanna River—which provides nearly half of the fresh water that flows into the Bay. According to the report, the ability of these reservoirs to trap pollutants has been steadily declining.
“Storage capacity in Conowingo reservoir continues to decrease, and ultimately that means more nutrients and sediment will flow into the Bay,” said Mike Langland, author of the study, in a release. “Understanding the sediments and nutrients flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River is critical to monitoring and managing the health of the Bay.”
Excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, while nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms and the creation of low-oxygen “dead zones,” which suffocate underwater life. Reducing the amount of pollutants in local waterways is integral to Bay restoration efforts, including the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which Bay Program partners recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. In anticipation of a decline in Conowingo reservoir’s ability to trap sediment, the TMDL includes a mechanism for addressing any increases in nutrient and sediment pollution caused by a full reservoir.
The report from USGS reiterates the findings of a study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, released in November 2014, which found that the once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution that dredging, bypassing or other operational changes, which would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits.
The USGS report, Sediment Transport and Capacity Change in Three Reservoirs, Lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland 1900–2012, is available online.
A team of scientists has found that reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed—which includes portions of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland—could ease the environmental effects of an “essentially full” reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam, whose pollution-trapping capacity has diminished in recent years.
The reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam—as well as those behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams—has for decades trapped particles of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River, as well as the nutrients that are often attached. But according to research from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, this reservoir is full. The once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often.
While researchers explored strategies for managing sediment at the dam, the team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution to the “full reservoir” problem. Indeed, dredging, bypassing or other operational changes would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits. But adhering to the Chesapeake Bay’s “pollution diet”—and taking additional steps to reduce pollution where possible—would offer management flexibility and environmental benefits.
The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was established in 2010 to reduce nutrient and sediment loads across the watershed. Lowering these pollutants is integral to restoring the health of the Bay: excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, and nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms. While the LSRWA team did find that the effects of the sediment that “scour” from the Conowingo reservoir cease once it settles to the bottom of the river, the effects of nutrient pollution linger. Green infrastructure, forest buffers and sound farm and lawn management can help businesses, landowners and individuals contribute to a restored Chesapeake.
Sediment reservoirs near the mouth of the Susquehanna River are filling up faster than researchers expected, posing a new obstacle for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
As the holding areas behind the lower Susquehanna's three dams reach capacity, their ability to trap upriver sediment and the phosphorous that is often attached wanes, and the sediment that is held grows more and more likely to flow out of the reservoirs and into the river.
According to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), strong storms, severe flooding and faster-moving water have turned the one-time pollutant blockers into less effective gates.
The Susquehanna delivered more phosphorous and sediment into the Bay last year than it has in more than three decades of monitoring. The past 15 years have seen a 55 percent increase in phosphorous entering the Bay from the river and a 97 percent increase in sediment. And while nitrogen flow has dropped, it shows a jump during large storms--like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 or Hurricane Ivan in 2004--and the flooding that follows.
Excess nutrients and sediment can harm fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. Nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of algae blooms that rob water of oxygen and, with suspended sediment, cloud the water and block the sunlight that plants need to grow.
A previous USGS report cited improvements in nutrient and sediment trends as a sign of improving Bay health. The USGS has seen significant reductions in nutrient and sediment concentrations upstream of the reservoirs, which reflect the positive impacts of conservation efforts in the Susquehanna watershed. But the filling reservoirs behind the Safe Harbor and Holtwood dams in Pennsylvania and the Conowingo Dam in Maryland overshadow the pollution reduction progress that is being made.
The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment team, composed of federal, state and regional partners and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is exploring ways to expand the reservoirs' capacity.