NYC studying the Lehigh River to potentially help its water supply

Written by on February 10, 2021

NYC studying the Lehigh River to potentially help its water supply

By Megan Frank

February 10, 2021

The Lehigh River in South Bethlehem with the SteelStacks in the background. Photo| Wikimedia Commons

As the Lehigh River draws people from all over the region for whitewater season, the churning of the water depends on a dam controlling the flow. 

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Businesses that rely on that flow say recent moves by New York City are the first steps towards a water feud, but NYC officials say that’s not the case. They say they’re looking at the dam to see if it could relieve pressure on New York City’s vast water system. 

Sky Fogal makes his living on the Lehigh River and says the river is an oasis that allows people to disconnect.

It’s forced on you because there is no cell service. To be able to spend a day, looking at bald eagles, hearing no traffic, it’s really nice. I think it’s a cure for what I call nature deficit disorder,” Fogal says.

To him, anything that affects the Lehigh River is a family matter. In the 1970s, his father started one of the first whitewater rafting businesses in the Poconos.

“My dad was a hippie. He really loved being outside and going boating and hiking. He said to himself, how can I turn this into a way to make money?” Fogal says.

Today, Fogal runs the Jim Thorpe-based Pocono Whitewater with his family.

But lately, he says he and other Pocono Mountain business owners are finding it harder to unplug. 

Fogal says he’s worried because New York City is funding a study that could lead to changes to the Francis E. Walter Dam.

We’ve had this really great flow management plan for the last 10 plus years,” he says, and he doesn’t want that to change. 

Neither does Jerry McAward who owns Jim Thorpe River Adventures on the Lehigh.

“The public needs to understand that New York City is nosing around in a Pennsylvania resource to potentially enable them to preserve water,” McAward says.

The study they’re both talking about was launched in 2019. It’s run by the Army Corps of Engineers. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is ponying up nearly $900,000 to fund it. 

For Fogal, the Big Apple’s large investment is cause for concern.

“New York City is trying to do a water grab here in Pennsylvania,” Fogal says. 

Adam Bosch, a spokesman for NYC’s environmental arm, says the city has no interest in sticking its straw into the Lehigh. 

“We only have an interest in understanding whether this reservoir can help supplement the water that’s released from our reservoirs to push saltwater back towards the ocean more effectively during times of drought,” Bosch says.

New York City protects its drinking water by keeping the ocean’s saltwater at bay, he says. Right now, it taps its own 19 reservoirs to do so. 

But, Bosch says, in future times of drought, water releases from the Francis E. Walter Dam could help do some of that “desalination” work.

All of that involves the Lehigh River because it’s part of the Delaware River Basin.

New York and their holdings are at the very top of the Delaware River watershed, says  Melinda Daniels, a research scientist at Stroud Water Research Center.

To understand the basin, she says, it helps to imagine a tree.

If you think about a tree, the main trunk is the Delaware River, but there are numerous branches or systems like the Lehigh River,” Daniels says.

The basin — that tree — is a complex water system stretching more than 300 miles from Hancock, N.Y. to Cape May, N.J. 

In 1961, the Walter Dam was constructed on the Lehigh River for two purposes: flood management and recreation. But 60 years later, things have changed, Daniels says. 

“Not only do we have flooding. We have climate change, which is raising sea level and causing salt wedges to intrude further up our river systems and threaten freshwater drinking supplies” she explains. 

She says cities that sit along the basin, including Philadelphia and Trenton, see upgrades to the Walter Dam as a potential solution to those problems. 

“Any freshwater that could be provided to the Delaware River is potentially a water supply for those cities.”

Still, Daniels, who retired from the Army Corps Environmental Advisory Board, says the concerns of Lehigh River business owners have merit.

She says modifications to the dam could change the number of water releases for things like whitewater rafting and fishing.

Might there be a change in the scheduled releases? Yes,” Daniels says. 

But she says the more likely scenario is water flow interruptions during construction. 

The Army Corps is looking at nine options and Daniels says some of them may not affect the flow of the Lehigh at all.

Army Corps spokesman Steve Rochette says the agency has no plans to stop recreation on the river.

In fact, we’re looking for ways to potentially improve the recreational water release program. We do understand those concerns,” Rochette says.It’s absolutely being taken into consideration.”

Back on the Lehigh, Fogal and other business owners say they’re not convinced. They want more public meetings — and a concrete assurance that recreation won’t get shafted.

The study wraps up in 2022. But even then there’s a long way to go. Congress would need to approve any changes before approving funding for the work.

The Army Corps of Engineers told WLVR it plans to hold at least one public virtual meeting later this year.  

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