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Chief watershed operator speaks at Kibler School program

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Mike Pennella, chief watershed operator for the Bethlehem Water Authority, spoke at a meeting held at Kibler One-room School.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Mike Pennella, chief watershed operator for the Bethlehem Water Authority, spoke at a meeting held at Kibler One-room School.
Published July 28. 2010 05:00PM

Friends of the Kibler School sponsors Three Thursdays in July programs at the restored one-room school in Towamensing Township. On July 22 the second of the three programs was presented by Mike Pennella, chief watershed operator for the Bethlehem Water Authority.

The watershed lands are behind the school which is on Pohopoco Drive.

Kay Gilbert, president of the Friends, introduced Pennella by saying he has things in twos: kids, cats and dogs. He has been at the watershed since March 2010, though he was quick to point out that he has 22 years working for the water authority.

Gilbert said Pennella was the speaker at the first ever Thursday program when his subject was snakes.

A tape began with a beautiful winter scene of Wild Creek which begins at Three O-clock Springs off Reservoir Road a short distance before Route 903.

"Man needs fresh water," said Pennella.

In 1754 the Moravians of Bethlehem harnessed waterpower and built the first water works in the country.

By 1762 water flowed uphill to the location where Central Moravian Church is now located and to eight other buildings, with standpipes spread around the city so people could carry water. It was the first pressurized water system.

Along Monocacy Creek there is a five-foot-wide by 18-foot diameter water wheel. The water was pumped through hollow logs. The water wheel can be seen in the partially restored Industrial Area, which has the goal of creating the area as it was in the18th century.

General Casimir Pulaski used the area that was to become the early industrial site as a campground. The Polish general was recommended by Benjamin Franklin to serve under General George Washington.

Franklin was among the early visitors to study the water system, a trip made by many of the founding fathers. It became the model for the Philadelphia system built in 1799.

In the 20th century city council began actively considering the watershed. It would require tunnels to provide a gravity-fed transmission line. The question of whether there was enough water to fill a reservoir was studied.

A plant to make concrete pipe was set up in Danielsville. Construction began at both ends with a successful meeting in the middle.

All material used for the dams was taken from local quarries. Euclid scoops were used to bring fill. Since it was an earthen dam a spillway was needed. It was two years before water went over the spillway.

On Oct. 1, 1941, citizens from Bethlehem motor pooled to the opening. Now 27 million gallons per day go to the city. Wild Creek holds 10 billion gallons of water - more than enough to provide a year's supply for the city.

Because of the water quality few chemicals are added, and the water is not filtered so it tastes natural and keeps the cost of water low.

At one time 23 men were employed at the watershed. The land is also managed for timber production and recreation.

Following a 2,800-acre fire in 1963 fire fighting capabilities were enhanced. The Wild Creek fire tower was built and the report of a sighting of smoke was heard on the tape. Since 1964 the loss to fires has been 10 acres or less per year.

It is 56 miles from the Tunkhannock portion of the watershed to Center Valley - the most distant point where water is delivered.

It is all gravity fed except for certain areas in South Bethlehem.

Pennella was asked when the last time was that customers had to conserve water. He was it was 1963-64 but water could be channeled in if needed.

A Kibler School Friend, Inge Foster, asked if the fire tower is still manned. The job is now done by more technological means.

Frank Letterio asked if the lookouts, one at each dam, will be reopened. Pennella did not see that happening at Wild Creek but there is a future possibility at the Penn Forest Dam where the lookout is outside the fence. They were closed after 9/11.

Wild Creek is an earthen dam and Penn Forest is made of roller compacted concrete. The original dam at Penn Forest was on the site of earlier fish hatcheries, and the dam itself was built over springs so there were problems nearly from the start. Penn Forest is used to keep Wild Creek Reservoir full which provides better water quality.

Employees are down to six. Water is checked daily. There is grass to mow and trees to clear. Fire lanes must be kept open. Once a year huge screens have to be raised and pressure washed.

"If the stone flies disappear you know we have problems," said Pennella. "It is a challenge to maintain water quality because the forest helps maintain it."

Letterio asked if the watershed went as far as Hell Hollow. It goes beyond that and surrounds the 1,000 acre Palmerton Fish and Hunt Club.

The work on the transmission line a few years ago was not, as people supposed, a replacement, but placing a second line in the right of way.

And finally, Tom Newman, a member of the Towamensing Township Historical Commission, asked if they were monitoring the stone arch bridge below Wild Creek.

"We keep an eye on it," said Pennella.

He introduced Dan Meixell, a police officer for the Bethlehem Authority, who lives below the dam. "I keep close watch on it," he said, and received the only laugh of the evening.

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