A new $12 million fish lift at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River is giving American shad a big boost in their comeback from the brink of extinction in the upper Chesapeake Bay.
The lift, the largest of its kind in the nation, was to be dedicated today by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and officials from Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Dr. Torrey C. Brown, Maryland's natural resources secretary, hailed the fish lift as "a phenomenal achievement," a milestone in more than 20 years of effort by Maryland and Pennsylvania to restore the traditional spawning range of shad in the Susquehanna.
"It represents a giant step forward for fish in the bay," agreed Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state panel of legislators.
The lift, a larger version of an existing fish elevator at the dam, will allow up to 750,000 shad and 5 million river herring to pass upriver to waters that have not seen natural spawning runs in more than 50 years.
The lift can hoist up to 22 tons of fish every 25 minutes over the 90-foot-high hydropower dam. Shad and other fish are lured into a collection channel at the base of the dam, where they swim into a large submerged hopper that is then raised.
Once at the top, biologists sort the shad and load them into trucks that carry them upriver beyond three other dams that block the migratory fish-spawning runs. Putting fish back in the Susquehanna above Conowingo allows fish to swim only 14 miles upriver before they are blocked by another dam.
Fish spawning areas in the Susquehanna and thousands of miles of other bay tributaries are blocked by dams, culverts and other obstructions. As part of the 1987 bay restoration agreement, state and federal officials have pledged to remove stream blockages and provide fish passages at dams to restore the bay region's historic fish spawning runs.
Brown said state officials are negotiating with the utilities that own the other dams to build similar fishways so that in a few years, shad and herring may be able to reach their spawning areas under their own power.
Brown praised Philadelphia Electric Co., the dam's operator, for ending two decades of friction with the states over Conowingo by signing an agreement two years ago to build the fish lift. Brown attributed the utility's turnaround to a corporate shakeup that followed the forced shutdown of the utility's Peach Bottom nuclear power plant, which has since been restarted.
The utility also agreed several years ago to provide a continuous flow of water through the dam and to aerate it so that it could sustain fish downstream.