Bethany gets Corps’ answer on flooding concerns


It’s about a half-inch thick and years in coming (many years, when the larger picture is considered) and, in it, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offers an answer to Bethany Beach about its ongoing flooding problems:

There’s not much they could do, and nothing further they plan to do.

“This is something we funded partially with $55,000 and the Corps with $120,000,” said Mayor Jack Gordon at the Bethany Beach Town Council’s workshop on March 14. “This is our latest attempt to try to get a handle on the flooding in town, which has always been a concern.”

“Every time somebody wades to the post office … this is something that comes up,” he continued. “It’s a topic we’ve addressed for years and years and years, and this is the latest official word on it.”

“We asked the Corps to look at flooding from a larger perspective than just the 1 square mile of Bethany Beach,” Town Manager Cliff Graviet explained Monday. “We asked them to look at the surrounding area and look at what we can do to control tidal flooding in the area.”

Graviet noted that the flooding happens mostly north of Route 26 and is caused “by things out of our control.”

That includes the Loop Canal, which sees water flow from the nearby Salt Pond and Assawoman Canal. The Corps also looked at possible dams or choke points near the Cotton Patch development to the north and closer to the Indian River Bay, seeking information on whether flap-gating or damming — such as with the bladder dam that has been considered in the past — might impact flooding.

On page 80 of the report, in the second paragraph, is a summary of the report’s conclusions:

“Continuing with the ‘best case’ concept, the simplest, effective alternative (LCD 4.5) was taken through a conceptual design, cost estimate, and economic analysis to determine if the benefits realized through flood damage reduction would outweigh the costs of constructing the dam.

“The economic analysis concluded that there was a 95 percent certainty that the benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) for the proposed project would be less than 1.0 (costs are greater than the benefits). The BCR is the standard parameter which USACE applies to all Civil Works feasibility studies to determine if project construction would be justified. Any BCR that is less than 1.0 is considered not justified.

“Therefore, from the perspective of USACE, further analysis of an inflatable dam at the confluence of the Loop Canal and the Assawoman Canal is not recommended. USACE recommends that the Bethany Beach flood risk management feasibility study be terminated at this time.”

Graviet pointed out that the summary references only the problems due to tidal flooding, and doesn’t even take into account rainfall from a storm.

“It talked about some things that could have an impact,” he said. “But the Corps funding ended at a certain point, and they didn’t include rain runoff from points in the community.” With rainfall as an additional factor, he said, “the minimal impacts of a dam would be reduced even more. … We’re nowhere near the Point where the Corps would get involved and continue to help with addressing flooding in the town,” he concluded.

Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer noted that the study includes documentation of all of the past studies on flooding in the town, dating back to 1999 and not including the Corps’ own work.

“There have been seven studies by the Town with no clear direction as to what was best,” he said, noting that the best of the possible efforts referenced by the Corps would mitigate a 10-year flooding event (a storm, not heavy rain).

Under that scenario, a $1.4 million inflatable dam placed at the confluence of the Loop and Assawoman canals would cost the Town $94,000 per year to maintain and have less benefit that that cost.

Killmer said that, with a significant source of the flooding problem coming from outside town limits, “It would be diff or nearly impossible to address it, because of the lack of jurisdiction of the Town and other agencies.”

Gordon emphasized that one reason the Town didn’t have so much infrastructure damage in floods is that its building ordinances have helped prevent damage.

“If we follow FEMA guidelines for new construction and major renovations — at this point, we’re almost limited to that kind of mitigation of flooding,” Killmer added. “Most of these things aren’t under our control. This is one of the facts of life of living near a beach, an ocean, a significant body of water. At certain points they come out of their banks.

“I do believe the Town has done everything possible to do to look at this. We’ve done our due diligence,” he continued. “I know it’s not going to make a lot of people happy, but there’s not much more the Town can do.”

Graviet said one of the important takeaways from the report was that, even with the Loop Canal dammed at its confluence with the Assawoman Canal, it would have minimal impact, not greater than that of a 10-year storm. “And that doesn’t take into consideration rain from an event. That means Pennsylvania Avenue, where the most severe flooding is, is unlikely to receive any benefits from an inflatable dam.

Gordon noted that the street is largely below sea-level. “Atlantic doesn’t flood like Pennsylvania Avenue does,” he said.

“It’s a bowl. It comes right down the street from the north,” Killmer added.

Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman said she’d been surprised by the portion of the study indicating how much water comes in to the Loop Canal from Fresh Pond, which leads into the Salt Pond. “Depending on where a dam would be placed, there were diminishing returns all along the Loop Canal. It wasn’t as great as I’d thought it would be.”

Killmer reminded fellow council members that when the Town had previously looked into a bladder dam, DNREC officials had been “unhappy” with the idea because it would transfer some of the flooding into neighboring communities.

Graviet said that prior information had suggested the impact of a dam outside the town would have been minimal — a few inches in increased water levels.

“This report suggests there would be 18 to 20 inches of increase in flooding along the Assawoman,” he said. “That takes it out of consideration,” he declared, saying DNREC wouldn’t allow that kind of impact to take place.

And while it might look like water in a storm was coming over the spit from Salt Pond into the canal, Graviet said the report confirmed that the water does, in fact, flow from the Assawoman into Salt Pond. The Town now uses time-lapse photography to show just that during storm events, he said.

With renovations to Route 26, he added, the water no longer flows across Route 26 but stays on that side.

Hardiman said that she hoped the Town would add a cover sheet or executive summary to the report, to draw people’s attention to things such as the information on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gordon said he wanted to make sure people could review it for themselves, asking Graviet to put it, in its entirety, on the Town website. (The full study is online at http://townofbethanybeach.com/DocumentCenter/View/2125.)

For Councilman Joseph Healy, one takeaway is how lucky the Town has been because of another aspect of its storm protection — one that protects it from the ocean.

“I go back to Sandy,” he said. “We don’t get enough credit down here for making sure we had the dune in front. That dune has really saved us twice now, and if a third event occurs, I don’t know what is going to go on,” he added of the current state of the dune, damaged from two nor’easters over the winter and not scheduled for renourishment until 2017.

“We’re not given any credit for that” in the report, he noted, though Graviet emphasized that the report doesn’t address flooding from the ocean, just from the inland sources.

Healy noted state officials’ comments after Sandy, referencing the lack of FEMA or Red Cross trucks “over there trying to repair physical damage to us. That cost savings doesn’t show in this.”

Drone restrictions in the works

Also on March 14, the council discussed a draft of a proposed ordinance that would restrict the flying of drones in the town.

Graviet acknowledged possible conflict in the regulations with those being developed by the FAA, but said the Town would likely revisit the ordinance once the FAA regulations were finalized. The draft regulations are based on those drafted for use in Chicago, he noted.

He said he had spoken with council members about ways in which the Town might be able to permit commercial drone flight but said the problem was how to regulate such use.

“There is no competency exam or license you can get … to verify your credentials,” he said. People can (and are generally required to) register their drones with the FAA. But, he said, there is no inspection as to whether a given drone is safe to operate and manageable to fly.

“There are so many ways for them to fail,” he said, referencing mechanical problems, wireless signal issues and human error. “I’m not sure how we would permit any individual to operate a drone” if the council passed an exemption for commercial flight.

Killmer said the emphasis of the regulations was on public safety, especially regarding the town’s beaches. With so many drones sold over the past Christmas season, he said, “We don’t want this to be an issue with so many users, with people sitting on the beach, people flying them along the beach and boardwalk,” he said, referencing possible crashes and drones possibly being flown into families.

“We have to be more proactive than reactive. You know they’re going to come here. Other towns have contacted council members with their concerns. At the end of the day, to do nothing would be inappropriate also.”

Killmer said he thought drone flights could, to start out, be limited to the owner’s own property, with permission from their neighbors.

“This is something we can’t drop, because I think this summer it could be an issue.”

Hardiman noted that Realtors are using drones to offer perspectives of homes for sale.

“As long as that’s being done with the permission of the owner,” she said, “that would be fine. What troubles me is that it says it’s for recreational purposes only. If we could find some way to put in commercial purposes, with the permission of the owner, that would take into account Realtors.”

Councilman Bruce Frye said the Town had to take into account a future with drone deliveries from Amazon.com and people wanting to do aerial coverage of the Fourth of July Parade.

“It’s very clear it should be limited,” Graviet said, because of the possible safety issues. “Absent some way to qualify the experience of someone operating the drone or the mechanicals and systems in the drone, how do we do that? There isn’t a way now.”

Gordon noted that, on New Year’s Eve, during the Town’s first ball-drop on the boardwalk, “There must have been 500 people on Hollywood. And I saw this green drone flying over. I didn’t think the Town was going to be looking at doing that,” he said. “And then I found out it wasn’t the Town. I have no idea who was flying a drone over 500 people. If it had fallen out of the sky, who knows who’s liable?”

Gordon also noted concerns about privacy issues, which have already come into play with the Town’s own webcams.

“This is an issue we can be out in front on.”

Gordon said the issue would be considered again at the council’s April meeting.