Log In

Reset Password

Five Schuylkill dams slated for rehabilitation

Meetings to discuss rehabilitating five flood control dams within the Little Schuylkill River watershed were held Thursday from the Tuscarora State Park office in Barnesville.

“I want to point out that these dams are no less safe than the day they were built,” said Heather Smetlz, a civil engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

What has changed over the years, she said, are regulatory requirements. She noted that today’s design standards are above and beyond what was in place when the dams were built more than 50 years ago.

As a result, each of the dams is considered out of compliance.

Schuylkill County, which owns four of the dams, has authorized the NRCS to develop rehabilitation plans. The agency works with state agencies and private engineering firms to rehabilitate dams across the nation.

The goals, officials said, are to have the dams meet or exceed state and federal dam safety criteria, and to continue to provide flood protection for the next 50 to 100 years.

Three of the dams, including the 96-acre Locust Creek Dam at Tuscarora State Park, are in Rush Township; one is in Ryan Township and another is in East Brunswick Township.

All were put in place to protect the flood-prone areas in Tamaqua, New Ringgold and Reynolds in West Penn Township, said Smeltz. She mentioned major flooding incidents that decimated the area between the early and middle parts of the last century.

The most severe occurred in August 1955 and caused $1.6 million in damage to industrial, residential and commercial properties in the greater Tamaqua area. The floodwaters also impacted state routes 443, 209 and 309, she noted.

“If you bring that up in today’s dollars, that’s over $18.5 million in damages just from that one storm event,” she said.

Around that time, Smeltz said, federal lawmakers passed a Flood Prevention Act that authorized the construction of dams and provided for other measures to protect people and property from flooding.

No problems with dams

Hosensock Dam was the first to be constructed in the Little Schuylkill Watershed. Built in 1961, it is near Fifth Avenue in Barnesville, Ryan Township. Next came Koenig’s Creek Dam in 1962, which lies in West Brunswick Township, about 3 miles west of New Ringgold.

The Locust Creek dam at Tuscarora State Park was finished in 1964. And in 1968, the Little Schuylkill River Dry Dam and neighboring Neiferts Creek Dam were put in place about 3 miles north of Tamaqua on State Game Lands 227 in Rush Township.

The Locust Creek Dam is owned by the state.

Lisa Mahall, Schuylkill County engineer, noted that the county maintains its four dams and submits annual inspection results to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

When significant flooding events hit the county in 2006, 2011 and 2018, the dams detained millions of gallons of runoff that would have otherwise contributed to downstream flooding.

Mahall said that during those incidents, the dams “performed what they were designed to do.”

Likewise, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is in charge of inspections and maintenance at the Locust Creek Dam. Again, no problems have been reported.

County Commissioner Barron “Boots” Hetherington attended the first of the two meetings, which also brought environmental agencies and watershed organizations. A later meeting saw more attendance from the general public.

Reason for upgrades

“Today’s meeting is to inform the agencies and the public that the county has reached an agreement with NRCs to develop a rehabilitation plan for our dams to (meet) the current safety and regulatory standards set forth by the state and the government,” Hetherington said. “These dams are operating the way they are supposed to operate. The trouble is the rules and regulations have changed and the intensity rainfall has changed.”

As a lifelong farmer, Hetherington is aware of precipitation.

“We get the same amount of rainfall but we get these crazy storms with 3, 4, 5 inches, so the design years ago that was suitable for these dams is no longer proper,” he said.

Preliminary studies at all dams have revealed no issues of concern, said Joe Kudritz, a project engineer for North Wind Resource Partnership, which is working with NRCS.

Repositioning or widening of the emergency spillways at the dams, however, could allow for more water flow when it is needed, Kudritz said.

What’s next

As the studies get underway, engineers will make a number of recommendations on how to rehabilitate the dams. There’s even a chance that decommissioning could be an option.

During the meetings, the NRCS collected input from attendees - and will continue to do so. Smeltz said the NRCS wants to see what individuals consider most or least important when it comes to things like water quality, floodplains, wetlands, or impact on threatened or endangered species.

Additional meetings will be held.

In the long run, however, it is up to the county and state to determine what route to take.

“At the end of the day, it does come back to the county and DCNR as to how you want to proceed,” Smeltz said. “At the end of the planning study, the county and DCNR have the option of saying, ‘Thank you, NRCS. We appreciate the information but we are good for now.’ There is no obligation by the county or DCNR to move forward with the design or to move forward with rehabilitation of any of these structures.”

Schuylkill County Commissioner Barron “Boots” Hetherington speaks during one of two meetings held Thursday to discuss the rehabilitation of county flood control dams. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS