If the Lehigh River can be thought of as the artery of the Lehigh River Valley, then surely the Francis E. Walter Dam must be the heart that supplies that artery with a regulated supply of life-giving water.
To the many who enjoy the benefits of the Lehigh River be it rafting, kayaking, fishing, hiking, exploring, salinity control, or it's principal purpose, flood control the Francis E. Walter Dam seemed far away and inaccessible.
That is why members of the public were invited on a tour of the dam, organized through Carbon County Magazine carboncountymagazine.com. Of the 20 participants who reserved for the tour were members of Pocono Whitewater, The Ironton Rail trail, the Lehigh Valley Kayak & Canoe Club, the PA Fish & Boat Commission, and Blue Ridge Real Estate.
According to Craig Harahus of Blue Ridge Real Estate, the land on which the FEW Dam is located was once owned by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company. LC&N, the company central to the anthracite coal industry, the Switchback Gravity Railroad, and the Lehigh Canal, around the turn of the last century, acquired tens of thousands of acres of land for coal exploration, river hydraulics and land development. In the land development arena, LC&N, through Blue Ridge, created lake resorts at Hauto, Split Rock, Jack Frost, and Big Boulder.
Harahus said that the company purchased the lands, that would become FEW Dam, with the goal of creating a series of hydroelectric generating plants along the Lehigh River. He added that the federal government condemned the land and bought it from LC&N/Blue Ridge to build the FEW Dam.
Before the FEW Dam, the Lehigh River was subject to massive flooding a half dozen times each century. These were often called freshets an occurrence when the ice that had formed on the dammed Lehigh River, was subjected to a heavy rain. This would build pressure under the ice, cracking it into massive ice sheets and releasing a wave of water often over 30 feet high, cascading down the Lehigh River and destroying almost everything in its path.
The most famous freshet, that of 1861, combined ice sheets partnered with one million board feet of timber that had been stored above White Haven, to destroy the dams and locks on Upper Division of the Lehigh Canal and flood the riparian towns up to several hundred feet from the normal riverfront.
Tour participant Ray Bieak remembers when Hurricane Alice's rains came through the Lehigh River Valley during the 1954-1955 New Year's period.
"I lived in Northampton near the Coplay-Northampton Bridge and the Lehigh River got so high, it was hitting the bottom of the train trestle that went across the Lehigh River," Bieak recalled. "It flooded the railroad yard. That was in my backyard."
Fears of future flooding were finally put to rest when the FEW Dam was completed in 1961. The construction created a 234-foot-high by 3,000-foot-long earthen dam from 30,000 cubic yards of concrete, 105,000 cubic yards of rock, and 4.7 billion cubic yards of earth. The dam is designed to store up to 36 billion gallons of water. It has a spillway for overflow and a reservoir to retain the pool upstream of the dam. A 254-foot-high control tower contains the gates, instruments and controls for operation of the dam.
The baseline pool is at an elevation of 1,300 feet above sea level. On the day of the tour, the reservoir was at 1,350 feet, or 50 feet of storage. In the beginning of 2010, the operators at FEW Dam allowed the spring ice melts and rains to raise the level up to 1,370 feet. Now, with about half the summer gone, and whitewater releases on scheduled weekends, the level has fallen. Although the level has only dropped 20 feet, because the reservoir is shaped like a funnel, more water is stored at the higher elevations than at the lower elevations.
The tour was given by FEW Dam operators Dave Williams, Josh Dinko, and Brett Anderton, who noted that for dam releases, the water begins to be let out at 1 a.m. by opening the main 6-foot wide by 10-foot high gate by one foot. Ten minutes later, the gate is opened a second foot. Releases are stepped to avoid a sudden wall of water that could trap an unwary fisherman.
The operator noted that so far, the summer of 2010 has been dry. Although there have been several inches of rain in the Lehigh Valley, the watershed above the dam has not seen much rain. With such a low level of precipitation, the tributaries have been low with the release taking up to two hours longer than usual to go the 30-odd miles to Glen Onoko.
The tour took a tight-squeeze elevator from the bridge of the control tower at 1,420 feet to the level of the control gates at 1270 feet 80 feet below the pool. Last year the valves were stripped of their orange lead based paint and refinished with a zinc-rich gray paint.
There are three sets of 10-foot by 6-foot gates. Each set consists of an operational valve and a back up valve for service and emergency shut off. There are two smaller 24-inch diameter valves for low flow control.
As an earthen dam, the FEW has always had a certain amount of porosity. It was normal for small amounts of water to seep through, but over time, there was concern that these cracks could erode to major leaks. To prevent this potential damage, the Army Corps of Engineers, operators of the FEW, received a $4 million Recovery grant to inject grout to form an impervious wall across the breast of the dam.
As the FEW was established by law for the single purpose of flood control, the outfitters and kayakers aligned with the fishermen who wanted to create a trout fishery, and influenced Congress to, in the 1980s, repurpose the FEW Dam for both flood control and recreation.
In 2003, the Wildlands Conservancy brought together the various stakeholders concerned about the Lehigh River and issued the Lehigh River Watershed Conservation Management Plan.
The stakeholders agreed that benefits would be gained if water could be stored in the spring and released during the summer. To allow storage of water, a new access road was required. It was constructed along the crest of the dam and opened in 2005. Since then, the Wildlands Conservancy has continued to bring stakeholders together to review the release schedule.
For additional information, see: www.nap.usace.army.mil/Projects/FEWalter/index.htm  or www.facebook.com/fewalterdam .