Beneficial effects of lower Susquehanna River Dams are declining
Concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment are measured at the U.S. Geological Survey streamgage at Conowingo Dam at the downstream end of the Susquehanna River Basin in Maryland, where the river flows into the Chesapeake Bay. During the period September 7–15, 2011, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Lee, concentrations of these three constituents were among the highest ever measured at this site. These measurements indicate that sediment-storage processes behind the three dams on the lower Susquehanna River are evolving. In particular, they indicate that scouring of sediment (and the nitrogen and phosphorus attached to that sediment) may be increasing with time. Trends in flow-normalized fluxes at the Susquehanna River at Conowingo, Maryland, streamgage during 1996–2011 indicate a 3.2-percent decrease in total nitrogen, but a 55-percent increase in total phosphorus and a 97-percent increase in suspended sediment. These large increases in the flux of phosphorus and sediment from the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay have occurred despite reductions in the fluxes of these constituents from the Susquehanna River watershed upstream from the reservoirs. Although the Tropical Storm Lee flood event contributed about 1.8 percent of the total streamflow from the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay over the past decade (water years 2002–11), it contributed about 5 percent of the nitrogen, 22 percent of the phosphorus, and 39 percent of the suspended sediment during the same period. These results highlight the importance of brief high-flow events in releasing nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment derived from the Susquehanna River watershed and stored in the Conowingo Reservoir to the Chesapeake Bay.
It is no secret that the trap efficiency of these reservoirs are declining. And we no longer need the "big" storms to flush sediment and nutrients from them into the Bay. These findings show that efforts to clean up the Bay with a "pollution diet" my encounter extreme difficulties.
Bob Hirsch is a world-class scientist, and I count myself fortunate to have worked for the USGS while he was our Chief Hydrologist. He was a strong leader, but any time I observed him delving back into the actual science, I was blown away by his insights.