Thursday, July 11, 2013

Easton Officials Express Skepticism of Dam Removal Plan

By Christina Georgiou

A three-year study by the Wildlands Conservancy on how to restore shad to the Lehigh River calls for the complete removal of two dams in Easton, but Easton officials seemed skeptical of the plan Wednesday evening, saying that while they'd like to see the shad return to the waterway, there is probably a better way to achieve that.

Vice president of the Wildlands Conservancy Abigail
Pattishall presents the ecology group's study findings
to Easton City Council Wednesday evening.

Abigail Pattishall, vice president of the conservation group, said the study looked at various options including partial dam removal and fish ramps but concluded the only effective solution would be the complete removal of both the Easton dam, located at the forks of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, and the Chain dam which lies further upstream.

The Easton dam is owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), while the Chain dam is owned by the City of Easton. Both were originally built in the early 1800s and were intended to feed the Delaware and Lehigh canals.

Removal of the two dams would cost between $11.5 and $15.2 million, excluding engineering costs, the Wildlands Conservancy estimated. The potential undertaking, which would likely span a decade, is currently unfunded, though about $150,000 has been pledged by Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and from the Palmerton Superfund settlement.

Additional funding could be raised through grant opportunities, Pattishall said.

A slide from the Wildlands Conservancy study presentation
at the Easton City Council meeting Wednesday evening.
She added that while a number of infrastructure issues would need to be addressed and pumping stations would need to be constructed to keep the Delaware and Lehigh canals full as well, these obstacles could be overcome and the benefits of the dams' removal would be worth it.

"We're really talking about opening up a lot of new habitat," she said.

John Berry of the Shad Fisherman's Association also urged city council to support the removal of the two dams, saying that it would not only bring shad back to the Lehigh River, but would also bring several other desirable species of fish to the waterway.

And, removing the dam would open up new recreational opportunities on the Lehigh as well.

"The economy dam removal would bring is honestly the biggest benefit to the City of Easton," Berry told council members. "The City of Easton, located where it is, should see the lion's share of (increased revenue)...You have 20 million people...within a gas tank's distance of Easton...and they are potential (fishing) license buyers."

Councilman Roger Ruggles, who is also an engineering professor at Lafayette College, questioned the accuracy of the study, saying that claims that the dams' removal would mitigate flood situations is misleading.

Easton City Councilman
Roger Ruggles disagreed
with the Wildlands
Conservancy study findings
and said claims dam removal
would help reduce flooding
were inaccurate and

"Your report states a reduction of 16.1 feet in a hundred-year event," he said. "That was an inaccurate statement...You're wrong. The level on South Third Street is driven by the Delaware, not the Lehigh. If you're wrong about that, what else are you wrong about?"

He added that possible contaminants from decades of riverside industry may lurk under the river silt and these would be released if the dams were removed. He said the cost of environmental cleanup if this were the case could add "untold millions" to project costs.

Mayor Sal Panto agreed with Ruggles' assessment of the cause of flooding in the city.

"You should remove flooding from your report," he told Pattishall.

Councilwoman El Warner worried that the dams' removal would cost the city in other ways, even if Easton didn't contribute directly to the project's funding.

"The city may only own one dam, but the city owns several valuable assets that would be affected by it," she said, noting that sewer and gas lines, as well as other infrastructure, span the lengths of the two dams.

City officials also worried about the costs associated with pumping water back into the Delaware and Lehigh canals, saying that while Easton might not have to pay directly for the dam removal, they'd almost certainly have to bear the pumping costs.

Councilman Jeff Warren questioned why the fish ladders at the two dams have been ineffective, noting that they cost about $3.9 million to install less than 20 years ago, and that at the time were described as being state of the art.

"The design of the fish ladders developed on the west coast for salmon, which go through fish ladders quite well," said Leroy Young from the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission. "Shad don't."

The Easton Planning Department also said the study was flawed in a number of ways, and that total dam removal would present a number of disadvantages to the city.

Chief City Planner Brian Gish, who is also an avid fisherman, said the department looked at the issue from "a more holistic standpoint, not just fish passage."

"Written solely from a fish-navigation standpoint, (this study) is misleading," he said.

The city can't support dam removal at this point, and other remedies to allow shad back into the Lehigh should be considered, including modifying the fish ladders, or the installation of fish elevators.

"We know things don't work as they are, but that doesn't mean other solutions wouldn't," he said. "The solutions may require out-of-the-box thinking, but last I checked, that isn't something Easton has trouble with."

Gish also said that while dam removal might create some new recreational opportunities along the river, it would also likely eliminate others, as well as devalue some existing waterway investments, like boat docks and ramps, through the drop in water levels.

"It's one thing to cast into the Lehigh when it's five feet away, It's another when it's 30," he said.

City Planning Director Becky Bradley said the drop in the Lehigh's water levels as a result of the dams' removal would have on utility and sewer lines would be substantial.

"The Lehigh River area is dense with Easton utility infrastructure facilities," she said. "(It) would not just be a matter of inconvenience."

The change in water levels would also directly affect the piers and supports of the six bridges that lie upstream, inconsistent with their engineering and intended use, "necessitating expensive repairs and assessments."

The hydroelectric potential, though currently untapped, of the dams shouldn't be discounted either, Bradley said.

"Given the flow rates on the Lehigh iver and the impoundment height at each dam respectively, these dams have the potential to generate roughy 8.7 megawatts of electricity," she said. "Relative to electricity generated by fossil fuels, this would provide a carbon offset of approximately 226,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of taking 42,640 vehicles off the road."

Bradley also noted the historic value of the canals, as well as the dams, to local history. The canal corridor was the first to be nationally recognized, and the area has been estimated by the federal government to have added 7,892 jobs and $250 million to the regional economy, she said.

Panto also noted the dams' attraction in their own right, saying that many people are attracted to the riverfront to see the falls.

Despite the council's opposition to the dam removal plan, officials said they are committed to helping return shad to the Lehigh River through other methods.

"We just want to work together," Young said.

"There's no set time line. We're not asking you to decide (now)," Pattishall said. "My job is just to tell you what's best for ecological health. We would never move the project forward without city council's blessing."

1 comment:

  1. I agree the dams should be removed and the river restored. It is a shame that the mayor of easton and the council can't appreciate the benefits of a heathy river.