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A chance to go with the flow ...

  • 20090926-000128-pic-584526460.jpg
    Al Zagofsky/times News Dave Williams indicates the button he will press to trigger the first scheduled Big Whitewater Release on the Lehigh River.
Published October 05. 2009 02:55PM

Eight or even 10-foot waves are usually unheard of on the Lehigh River, where scheduled dam releases are in the 750 to 850 cubic foot per second range.

That's all going to change on Oct. 5 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release 4,000 cfs. from the Francis E. Walter Dam.

"At that level, it is a whole different river," said Steve Bretzik of Whitewater Rafting Adventures. "All the rocks that are normally sticking out of the river, turn into big waves. The smaller rapids aren't there anymore."

"It is an incredible opportunity," he continued. "The river's got to that level before, but never on a scheduled day when we can plan for it and run a trip. It's going to be a great day, but it's not going to get the attention it deserves because it's on a Monday in October. We don't have anybody booked."

Doug Fogal of Pocono Whitewater noted, "Four thousand cfs. is a lot of water. We will see if we have any crazies in our rafting pool that want to take advantage of it and we will put a guide in each boat and I'm sure we will use it for training purposes for our guides for high water, so they are exposed to more than a normal level in case they have to deal with it in the future. That's probably the biggest advantage to us other than private boaters and enjoying ourselves."

Asked if he was planning to go kayaking on the Oct. 5 Big Release, Fogal replied, "Oh yeah! Me and the rest of the staff."

"It's a great opportunity for people to really push their skill," said Jerry McAward of Jim Thorpe Rafting Adventures. "A lot of people have built a set of skills over the last few years and it is kind of neat to give them the opportunity to do something with it."

"This release is on a weekday, so it is a smaller draw," he noted. "The people who are really true enthusiasts will take a day off to do it. If we have 100 people, I will be happy.

"It is a lot of water in one day," McAward speculated. "Maybe it would be better as two 2,000 cfs. release days."

McAward is planning to run the entire 20-mile plus Lehigh Gorge from White Haven to Glen Onoko in 16-foot, 10-paddler, self-bailing rafts with a guide in every boat. He's thinking that with the large amount of rain, the 4,000 cfs. release may be kicked up to 5,000 cfs. by the water flowing into the Gorge from the saturated watershed. He expects the trip to take under four hours, less than half the time that it would normally take to cover that distance.

"We have water up the kazoo because the Army Corps stuck to their plan and it was a wet year," he explained.

The U.S. ACE announced its Lehigh River Management Plan for the year in the spring a plan that took the desires of the commercial outfitters, private paddlers, fishermen, and other recreational interests into account.

"The 4,000 cfs. release is going to happen," said George Sauls, Northern Area engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who is responsible for executing the plan. "The thing that hasn't been ironed out is how we get to 4,000. That release is on a Monday. The plan is to release up to 850 cfs. for Saturday, Oct. 3 and Sunday, Oct. 4. The issue is how to get from 850 cfs. on Sunday afternoon up to 4,000 and how do we get down from 4,000 to the weekday releases which are in the order of 300 cfs."

Sauls is referring to the ramping process which is the procedure for changing the river flow rate. The fishing community has asked for slow ramps of hours or even days so as not to shock the fish and not to surprise any wading fisherman. Sauls anticipates that the gates on the Francis E. Walter Dam will be opened in several steps to allow the river flow to gradually adjust.

The plan also placed the Big Release on a Monday to minimize the chance that a beginning paddler would be on the river at a flow rate well in excess of his or her skill level.

The outfitters are limiting guests to those that meet minimum requirements of age, athletic ability and experience. They are looking at the big water day as an opportunity to train their new guides.

"The new guides this year haven't seen water that high," Fogal said. "That's probably the most valuable."

There are two scheduled releases of 850 cfs., following the Big Release on Oct. 17 and Oct. 18. After those releases, the pool above the dam will be drained to its wintering level of 1,300-foot elevation. Currently, the pool elevation is over 1,365 foot and, because of continued rain, is rising.

To lower the pool and set the dam operation to inflow equals outflow, Sauls has several options which he is likely to combine. The flow rate for the release may be boosted to 1,000 cfs. above inflow, the period of the release, which runs from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Whitewater Weekends as well as the Big Release, could be extended several hours, or the gates of the dam could be left open on Oct. 18 until reduced to the wintering level.

"This has been a very wet year and we had tons of precipitation and have been able to add every event on the plan," said Sauls. "The last is this big one and because it is so big, you need a large slug of water. This is the first time, it has been wet enough, this late in the year to do it."

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