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Road Improvements May Make Lehigh River Flow Improvements Possible

Posted: 11/25/2003
By: Kevin Colburn

Ground was broken for a $2 million federal project to improve the road across the top of Francis E. Walter Dam on the Lehigh River in Carbon County, PA, on Friday, November 14, 2003.

An existing paved access road runs along the base of dam's upstream face and is submerged when water-storage levels rise substantially. When that road is submerged, it prompts large water releases that some officials said can adversely affect the river. U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Luzerne, and state Rep. Keith McCall, D-Carbon, said they have been pushing the project for years. McCall said large releases of water from the dam tend to ''flush'' fish down the Lehigh, and those releases may not be needed once the project is complete.

''The bottom line is, with the improvement of this road, the ecology of this river will be made better,'' McCall said at a groundbreaking ceremony on the crest of the dam Friday afternoon. ''One of our goals is to maintain a more steady level and avoid the flushing effect,'' said the 122nd District legislator.

The Lehigh River rafting industry and private whitewater boaters have been lobbying for this project for years as well. With the raised roadway, greater quantities of water can be stored in the reservoir, enabling more flexibility to the whitewater releases. In recent years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has provided only five weekend releases per year at the 750 cfs level, which are minimal for whitewater recreation.

However, any change to water levels at the dam and the schedule of water releases would have to be planned separately from the road project, said Gus Rambo, chief of design for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said the goal of the road project is to provide safe access to the top of the dam. An existing road to the control tower, in addition to the one along the face of the dam, could become submerged when water levels are at their highest, he said. The project ''won't automatically change the flow of water,'' Rambo said.

McCall agreed that changes in water storage and flow would have to be negotiated after the road project is complete. He believes maintaining a constant flow of 500 cfs would be better for the fish habitat but also enough to support Carbon's river-rafting businesses. Consensus among the boating community is that 500 cfs is not enough for recreational boating.

The dam's capacity is 35.7 billion gallons, but it has never been filled to capacity. It was built in 1962 by the Corps to protect Lehigh Valley communities from floods. Kanjorski, of the 11th District, noted that the road project cost is far less than the original $4.2 million estimate.

Steve Kittelberger
FLOW Paddlers’ Club
Based on original report in The Allentown Morning Call November 15, 2003

Note from AW:

American Whitewater staff and board members worked with PA Senator Stuart Greenleaf and local paddling clubs in supporting this road building project. Our objectives for this project were to assist the local community with a transportation problem caused by the dam and to increase operational flexibility from the dam in a manner that could better mitigate the dam's downstream impacts on the environmental, recreational, and economic viability of the Lehigh River. We appreciate all the effort that went into this project by the many interested parties. American Whitewater is looking forward to meeting with the various stakeholders to discuss the possibility of changing the management of the Lehigh River in a manner that enhances and restores public use of the river while also benefitting the river ecosystem.

It can be assumed that a scientific review and some open discussions will be required to bring together the diverse flow preferences stated in the above article into one flow regime for the Lehigh River. Obviously, the concept of maintaining a steady flow of 500 cfs would be devistating to whitewater recreation and to the ecosystem of the river which is naturally adapted to a dynamic flow regime. However, American Whitewater is confident that a flow regime can be developed and implemented that meets the interests of the various stakeholders and of the river itself.

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Kevin Colburn

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Asheville, NC 28806-9518

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