Parkland Press

Monday, September 25, 2017

Board OKs removal of Wehr's Dam

Thursday, June 19, 2014 by SUSAN RUMBLE Special to The Press in Local News

In response to a proposal from the Wildlands Conservancy, South Whitehall commissioners approved the eventual removal of Wehr's Dam at Covered Bridge Park.

Action was recommended in the park's master plan prepared by consultant YSM and adopted by the board in February.

Constructed 110 years ago, the dam supplied power to a grist mill on the northeast side of the covered bridge.

Although the mill and a mill race were removed in the early1950s, the dam still exists, but its structure shows signs of aging.

At the June 4 meeting, Abigail Pattishall, vice president of conservation for the Wildlands Conservancy, commented on the now obsolete dam.

"Keeping this dam is not an option. It's a hunk of concrete," she said. "We want to plan a responsible way to take it out. The Wildlands Conservancy has been pushing dam removal for five years."

She explained removal of the dam will have environmental, economic, and public safety benefits.

"There are no negatives with removal," Pattishall said. "Streams weren't meant to be dammed."

She said dams create slow moving pools behind them. These become a biological dead zone conducive to invasive plants.

The dams stop or delay fish movements, degrade the health of flowing water ecosystems, and cause increased flooding, Pattishall explained.

She said dam removal is supported by a long list of environmental and recreation groups and agencies.

Public safety is another concern. The 7-foot high dam could cause liability issues for the township, Pattishall added.

She said the Wildlands Conservancy wants to seek grant funding to complete the engineering, design, and permitting work necessary to remove the dam and restore the stream corridor.

The study will include evaluation of the covered bridge abutments to see whether reinforcement will be necessary when the dam is taken away.

South Whitehall Zoning Officer Keith Zehner asked whether the plan to regrade the flood plain to its natural state will alter the flood lines on the township map.

"This is very important for the township relating to flood insurance," Zehner said. "It could affect FEMA and PEMA insurance rates, if flood lines change on the maps."

"I can't imagine the actual flood lines will be re-drawn," Pattishall replied. "This is a localized flood issue."

Township Engineer J. Ralph Russek Jr. said the extensive study proposed by Wildlands Conservancy will surely include an evaluation of flood plain boundaries.

When board President Christina "Tori Morgan" asked for staff comments, Director of Public Works Bob Ibach expressed his thoughts on the dam removal.

"We are ready to move ahead on this," Ibach said. "This study would be the next step in the covered bridge master plan."

Commissioners then granted approval for Wildlands Conservancy to proceed with grant applications for engineering and design of the dam removal project.

Pattishall said about two years of study and work will be needed before removal of the dam.

The study comes at no cost to the township.