Excepting for a late September deluge, the headwaters of the Lehigh River received a scant amount of rain, about half its normal amount. Nonetheless, because of a management plan that balances flood control with fisheries management, water flow augmentation, and recreational whitewater releases through the summer, 2010 was a successful year for all who enjoy the Lehigh River.
For the sixth year, following each season of water releases from the Francis E. Walter Dam between Bear Creek and White Haven, the operator of the dam-the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-held a meeting of stakeholders to access the year's performance to learn what was good, and what went wrong, and what could be improved.
The USACE held a 2010 Public Comment Meeting on Monday, Nov. 1 at the Holiday Inn Express in White Haven. It drew 42 anglers, environmentalists, private boaters, outfitters, merchants, and local residents.
"We are bringing everyone together to review this years program, solicit ideas about what we could do better, and look for ideas for any improvements for next year," explained George Sauls, Northern Area Engineer for the USACE.
"We had to cancel two regular releases and the large release. So, there were three events at the end of the year we did not have enough water for," he continued. "If you remember, we were in a drought warning. It was a dry year until the very end."
"Following this meeting, we will meet with the state agencies later this year and go through what we discussed today, and develop a plan. In late January or early February, we will have another public meeting to announce the 2011 plan."
Sauls explained to the meeting that following the filling of the F.E.W. Dam in the spring, USACE was prepared for the summer season, having "started July 1 with a foot and a half of extra water." He explained that, "It was useful in satisfying fisheries and whitewater releases through the summer."
Despite the lack of rainfall, 20 of the 22 scheduled releases were achieved. The final two regular releases and the optional 4,000 cfs end-of-season mega-release had to be cancelled. The Corps received a thanks from Jeff Tashler of American Whitewater for providing early notification of caancellations by email and Internet posting.
At the end of September, a heavy rain cause the Corps to shift gears into its flood control mode. Over a few days, the reservoir behind the F.E.W. Dam rose to 96 feet, and over the Columbus Day period were released.
Audience members were invited to make comments. journalist Al Zagofsky, a member of the Lehigh Valley Kayak and Canoe Club, asked if the flow management plan could include dealing with the type of event which occurred this year, where releases were cancelled and later fall rains would refill the reservoir, could the additional October planned releases be scheduled.
Dean Druckenmiller of the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance noted that because the release ceased in September, it had minimal affect on the heat stress to the trout because air temperatures had already begun to cool.
Brad, who did not give his last name was concerned about the releases reducing the reservoir level for in-lake fishing. Others responded that before the plan was created, the need to keep a n existing service road above the water line had kept reservoir levels to minimum level.
Doug Fogal, an owner of Pocono Whitewater and a private boater, angler, and birder noted that since the summer whitewater release program has been implemented, the response by rafters "was way above what was anticipated."
Fogal noted that because of the releases, the fish population has increased to the point that, "We saw an incredible increase in the number of fishing birds such as the bald eagle and osprey," he said. "We have not seen that many in my 33 years on the river as we saw this year."
Dan Remp of the Lehigh Valley Kayak and Canoe Club asked if the
Marcellus shale drilling is expected to have an impact on the Lehigh River. Kevin Fazzini of the PA Bureau of State Parks responded that, so far, there are no announced plans to drill in the Lehigh River watershed.
Several private boaters asked how the release levels were determined and asked if releases of 1,500 cfs could be incorporated into the plan. Sauls explained that the typical 750 cfs releases were a compromise level that would provide a decent paddling experience without draining an excessive amount of water from the dam.
Tom Loughery of the Jim Thorpe and Carbon County Chamber of Commerce noted that the summer releases attract tourists. Jeff Keim of American Whitewater commented that he heard that each release generates about $2 million for the local economy.
To a suggestion that the releases be spaced out into the fall, Doug Fogal noted, "More people prefer to get wet when it is warm."