Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Fight to Clean Up Conowingo Dam

Our 2021 Ecoprint calendar, Protecting the Natural Beauty of the Chesapeake Bay, has given us the opportunity to work with 13 different organizations, all dedicated to helping solve the environmental challenges in this important ecological hub. August features Waterkeepers Chesapeake, an organization that works to protect their community, rivers, and streams from pollution.

Since it was built in 1928, the Conowingo Dam has provided reliable energy to Maryland residents. But the 14-mile long reservoir located on the Susquehanna River has also posed a significant threat to the environment. Over the years, millions of fish have been killed in the turbines, large deposits of silt have become stuck behind the dam, and several aquatic habitats have been destroyed. 

Many regard the Conowingo Dam as one of the largest contributors to water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately, Waterkeepers Chesapeake is working to address the situation.

Photos: John Pavoncello (May 2019)

Pushing the dam owners to participate in conservation efforts

There are 200 million tons of nutrients and sediment behind the dam, which leads to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Waterkeepers Chesapeake estimates the clean-up cost to be as much as $300 million a year—well short of the $172 the Maryland Department of the Environment provides.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake, along with other local environmental groups, has been pushing for the dam’s owner, Exelon Generation Company, LLC, to pay its fair share of the clean-up efforts, rather than that cost becoming the responsibility of state taxpayers. With the dam’s 50-year license up for renewal, now was the opportunity to get meaningful pollution reduction as part of the negotiations. 

Unfortunately, in March 2021, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved Conowingo Dam’s relicensing for the next 50 years—without adhering to the water quality requirements set forth in the Clean Water Act or providing a financial plan in place to pay for conservation and clean-up.

Taking the fight to court with the help of Earthjustice

Waterkeepers Chesapeake has joined forces with Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Sassafras Riverkeeper to mount a legal challenge to FERC’s 50-year dam license.

The group is being represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, and joined by Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Earthjustice has been helping Waterkeepers Chesapeake hold Exelon accountable for the clean-up since 2014. If their latest challenge is successful, Exelon will be required to invest more money in conservation and clean-up efforts over the next 50 years.

“The Conowingo Dam is the single most important issue as well as the largest threat to the success of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “FERC issued Exelon a new 50-year license to operate the Conowingo Dam, which includes grossly insufficient provisions that require no specific nitrogen and phosphorus reductions, no significant restoration of mussels, shad, and other aquatic species, and absolutely no plan to address the 200 million tons of sediment stored behind the dam. We are going to court to overturn this license and demand protection for our water quality and communities in the Chesapeake Bay region.”

Waterkeepers Chesapeake has worked to protect the environment, rivers, and streams from pollution since 2004. By supporting a network of Waterkeepers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the organization fulfills its mission every day. Their fight to save the environment and biodiversity around the Conowingo Dam is just their latest step along the way.  


Bobby Firestein

Waterkeepers Chesapeake


In 2004, nine individual Riverkeeper programs within the Chesapeake Bay watershed came together as a regional coalition of Waterkeeper programs to build regional campaigns led by a single coordinator hired under the fiscal sponsorship of Waterkeeper Alliance. In 2007, the regional coalition of then 15 Riverkeeper programs petitioned Waterkeeper Alliance to adopt the name “Waterkeepers Chesapeake,” after a very successful regional Stormwater Campaign that resulted in stronger regulations throughout the watershed.

The growth of the network of Waterkeepers has been phenomenal and has doubled since 2004 to now include 17 Waterkeepers. Waterkeepers Chesapeake incorporated in 2012 as a Maryland nonprofit and received 501(c)(3) tax exempt status in 2014. In 2012, the first Board of Directors was elected and an Executive Director hired. In 2014, WATERKEEPERS® Chesapeake became licensed under Waterkeeper Alliance and was designated a region within the Alliance.


Waterkeepers Chesapeake fights for clean water and a healthy environment by supporting Waterkeepers throughout the Chesapeake and coastal regions as they protect their communities, rivers, and streams from pollution.