The hurricane is on track to smack the United States somewhere between the Delmarva Peninsula to the south and Cape Cod to the north, more than likely across Delaware and Pennsylvania. There lies the Susquehanna River, which cuts through the Keystone State and rushes pass the Conowingo, where it pours nearly 20 million gallons of water per minute into the Chesapeake Bay.
More water means more grainy sediment, which wreaks havoc on the bay by burying life-sustaining grasses, the nurseries of many species of baby fish. It can smother slow-moving bivalves, such as oysters, and the living things that attach to their shells, such as mussels.
A bit of good news this year is that the little fish have grown up and moved on and the summer grasses are gone, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Last year, Tropical Storm Lee did exactly what biologists fear will Sandy will do.
Lee loitered over the Mid-Atlantic, dumping enormous amounts of rain. The Susquehanna picked up volume and speed, bench-pressed four million tons of the sediment behind the dam and sent it cascading over in four days.
That was a million tons more sediment than what usually flows over in an entire year. Last year, the Susquehanna sent more phosphorus and sediment into the bay than in any year since monitoring started in 1978, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.
Days after Lee, satellite images captured the normally blue bay colored like coffee with cream.
Plenty of sediment is left for Sandy: An estimated 160 million tons of sediment has piled up at the dam in the past 80 years. Some sediment, larger particles, contributes to the bay’s life cycle. But most of it, small granular particles, is a burden.
A U.S. Geological Survey study showed that the sediment behind the Conowingo Dam has become a main source of pollution that plagues the bay — nitrogen from fertilizers, phosphorus from manure and sediment from erosion, along with dust and construction site debris. The pollution threatens to undermine a multimillion-dollar bay cleanup.
“We’re likely to see additional scouring from behind the dam pushed down into the bay,” said Mark Bryer, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Initiative. “That sediment moves downstream.”
Bryer said Sandy underscores the urgency of removing the sediment from behind the dam, a costly task that Maryland and the Army Corps of Engineers are studying. In the past few years, monster storms including Lee, Hurricane Irene and now Sandy have lined up to take a shot at the bay.