What to expect at Thursday’s Francis E. Walter Dam meeting
Francis E. Walter Dam on the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains is used to reduce flooding and support recreation.
Now, a $3 million study is looking at whether it can accommodate a third mission: combating the effects of climate change.
The study has generated concerns about local control of water rights and impacts on recreational uses of the Lehigh River; a petition being circulated online argues “any revisions to the flow management plan must continue to prioritize the needs of the people in the immediate region of the Lehigh River.”
State and federal study partners are presenting the project during a public meeting Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, outside White Haven, just off the Pocono interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension (Interstate 476).
The study began last September, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District; Delaware River Basin Commission; and New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Thursday is the first of three public meetings that are scheduled, and the study is projected for completion in September 2022.
Thursday's meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. at Mountain Laurel Resort, 81 Treetops Circle, White Haven. Public comment is scheduled for 7 to 7:50 p.m., with each participant limited to two minutes. Comments may also be submitted at future meetings being scheduled for October or November 2020 and March 2021, or:
- via email to PDPA-NAP@usace.army.mil
- in writing to: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Planning Division, 100 Penn Square E., Philadelphia, PA 19107.
The deadline is Jan. 29 to submit written comments for consideration at the study partners’ next “Alternatives Milestone Meeting” scheduled Feb. 3. But comments will continue to be accepted “as the study moves forward and will be incorporated and considered at future phases of the study,” the Army Corps of Engineers says.
The 1961 dam in Carbon and Luzerne counties is about 77 miles upstream of the Lehigh River's confluence with the Delaware River in Easton.
Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, in a statement Wednesday, said the county "is closely monitoring New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal to assume control of the flow of water from the Francis E. Walter Dam which feeds the Lehigh River. In cases of drought, New York City wants to redirect the flow to the Delaware River to prevent salt from the ocean moving upstream and contaminating drinking water."
Mike Emili, the county’s director of public works, will attend Thursday’s meeting, McClure noted.
“The Lehigh River is an important resource for Northampton County and other communities,” McClure stated. “Our residents enjoy the river for both recreation and as a water source. I am coordinating with Representative Susan Wild’s office and community leaders to make sure the interests of our local tourism businesses and fishermen are protected.”
Originally known as Bear Creek Dam and renamed for the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Francis E. Walter, the dam has prevented more than $220 million in flood damages, the Army Corps of Engineer says.
It also supports millions of dollars in water-based recreational benefits to the region each year, the corps says.
“Recreation is a congressionally authorized purpose of F.E. Walter Dam,” the Army Corps of Engineers says in a fact sheet about the study, adding it “has no plans to downsize the recreation program. In fact, if a modification to the dam occurs, possible future enhancements to the program will be investigated.”
At issue in the study is how the dam might contribute toward "drought planning in the face of sea-level rise that is accelerating due to climate change," according to the corps' fact sheet.
"In particular, the study will examine reservoir management options that could release additional water under drought conditions to help repel salinity downstream," the fact sheet states.
New York City owns and operates three reservoirs at the headwaters of the Delaware River and releases a "significant quantity of water downstream to support multiple objectives on the Delaware River, including cold-water fisheries, enhanced flood attenuation, and flow targets," according to the fact sheet:
“Those reservoirs are part of a drinking water system of 19 reservoirs that provides high-quality drinking water to 9.6 million people in New York City and New York State. ... New York City does not want to draw drinking water from F.E. Walter Reservoir, have control of its operations, or purchase space within the reservoir.”
Options under study include a new dam tower with the ability to draw and release water at different elevations, as well as raising the height of the dam. The corps' fact sheet notes there are no structural problems with the dam as of now.
The Army of Corps of Engineers has further information on the “Francis E. Walter Dam Re-evaluation Study” available at www.nap.usace.army.mil.