South Bethany targets swimmable and fishable canals

South Bethany has been at the forefront of efforts to improve water quality in the area, with a committee dedicated to improving the water in its canals to the point where it is once again fishable and swimmable, as well as several cutting-edge projects proposed to help bring those improvements in quality and a strong educational component aimed at getting property owners to make changes that go hand-in-hand with better water quality.

The problem is one of man’s making, thanks to the dead-end canals that were constructed leading to the Little Assawoman Bay and run-off from human activity, but South Bethany officials have been working for years to do what man can do to improve the situation once again.

With a mild winter and unseasonably warm spring, one perpetual symptom of the problem has been particularly troublesome this year: a thick green layer of algae that tops much of the canal system.

In the past, the Town has worked with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) to have the algae removed mechanically, via a special harvester. But the machine has been subject to frequent breakdowns, leaving South Bethany residents to again complain about the green menace in the canals.

Resident Mike Matera did just that at the council’s May 11 meeting, stating, “I was going to buy another property on the canal, but that green [stuff] — I won’t do it. When I bought here in ’89, you could swim in the canals,” he emphasized.

Outgoing Mayor Jay Headman, who had himself served on the Canal Water Quality Committee for years, said the problem is one of history and geography, thanks to the construction of the dead-end canals, but one the Town “has spent a lot of energy and a lot of time” to deal with.

He noted the creation, through the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) of a forebay designed to help filter runoff from Route 1 that previously headed directly into the canal system.

“As far as the State, [Center for the Inland Bays] and DNREC are concerned, we are a model for what towns should do to reduce the nutrients,” he said. Speaking of the Town’s efforts at education and bio-retention, he added, “Everything we are doing is trying to reduce it.”

Those efforts include a survey this spring of the town’s stormwater system, looking for areas to improve that system, as well as the pilot program for diffusers in the canals, which is hoped will improve oxygenation and flow of the canal waters.

“We’re working on it, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.

“In its natural state, this wasn’t an issue,” Headman said of the waterways before the canals were constructed. “We’ve put in place an ordinance on impervious surfaces. We’ve looked at cutting off and grandfathering grey-water going into canals, and we made the decision that we would grandfather them and then educate to convince people to do it. The Town is that committed to improving water quality.”

Councilman George Junkin, who was previously on the Canal Water Quality Committee and now serves as the town council liaison to the group, also pointed out how much the geography of the area has changed over the decades.

“This used to be a nice natural area. There were 50 or 60 houses, and not a lot of impervious surfaces. … Now, it’s all impervious surfaces. We’re trying to keep nutrients out of the canals, but because they’re dead-end canals, what gets in stays in and the ends are bad.”

Junkin said the complaint-yielding algae problem this spring could be a blessing in disguise for efforts to deal with the larger issue.

“We had a horrendous algae bloom this year. People are interested,” he said of the water quality problem, “so we have to build on this. We can tell people that they can remove those pipes, and maybe they’ll want to have a law that says you have to remove them.”

Junkin gave a nod to the tidal-pump proposal developed by former councilman Lloyd Hughes.

“The tidal pump would have solved that problem,” Junkin said, “but it would have cost $7 million to $8 million, and good luck getting that.”

Instead, Junkin pushed successfully in April for the Town to allocate funding for the diffuser project to be tried this year in one canal, so that its potential can be gauged, even if the grant he has applied for from the EPA is not forthcoming.

The goal, as always, is cleaner water, with an eye toward again seeing life throughout the canals — both human and animal.

“Crabs and other animals used to be plentiful,” Headman recalled. “But as the dissolved oxygen levels have dropped, they know not to come in.”

“The goal of the water quality committee is to make our canals fishable and swimmable,” Junkin reiterated, “and it takes time to educate people and change cultures.”

Some of the town’s residents have been looking beyond the canal waters themselves to how the pollution that exacerbates the water quality problems of the dead-end canals can be prevented from entering the canals in the first place.

The town’s former Beautification Committee was recently renamed as the Community Enhancement Committee, partially because of its increasing focus beyond surface aesthetics and on the impact landscaping projects can have on issues such as water quality.

Councilwoman Sue Callaway, who heads the group, noted on May 11 that efforts to construct rain gardens, plant trees and incorporate bio-retention areas were not only improving the looks of the town but were helping to prevent pollution from flowing from the roads into the canals.

“York Beach Mall is looking greatly improved,” she said of the planting project there, saying that the landscaping work was set to move on to the circular beds in the Route 1 median, as well as the development of rain gardens along the paths bordering the highway, with those projects set to be completed by June 1.

The bio-retention areas that were largely constructed during the offseason were completed toward the end of April, with about 4,000 plant “plugs” being put in as the final element of the bio-retention system. The bio-retention areas are designed to retard the flow of stormwater from the roadway to the canals, allowing it to slowly filter through the ground and thus get naturally cleaned before it reaches the waterways.

Callaway said the plantings in these areas are expected to be able to survive being in standing water for even a few days, having been selected knowing that they would be in standing water. With the exception of one area in which new plantings were damaged by a violent rainfall, she said the effort had thus far been a success.

Another area — the northernmost among the bio-retention areas — had been hampered by an unexpected layer of clay in the soil, noted Headman, saying that the area had received more work and would likely receive additional attention until it is fully functional.

“Almost all of the trees made it,” Callaway said, including the addition of about 15 new trees in the area of York Beach Mall.

She said she was also discussing with the Center for the Inland Bays the placement of educational signs for the various projects, which might not only describe the plants used but how they benefit the environment, including water quality in the canals.

Junkin said such projects were “killing two birds with one stone. We’re doing things that help with the water quality and make the town more beautiful.”

With the projects, he noted, the Town is slowing rainwater from ending up in the canals.

“Some of it never ends up in the canals,” he said.

Junkin said he has continued to work with the CIB and the group’s new liaison with the Town on what steps can be taken next to continue the improvements.

“We’re going to inspect drains entering canals from the Town right-of-way. … They have been helping us get grants. The Town has about 80 storm drains leading into the canals, and we’re going to inspect their condition and see what can do to slow rainwater from entering canals.

“We have some ideas – some of them are easy and not too expensive — including the education of grandfathered properties about letting rainwater run from roofs and outside showers into the canals, to encourage them to disconnect. It’s not too hard to disconnect the downspouts, but an outside shower may or may not be easy. They may need a dry well to collect the water.”

Junkin said a survey of the connections draining into the canals indicated probably 20 percent of the town’s properties have one or more pipes draining into the canals, whether from downspouts or outside showers — in some cases three or more, as the downspouts drain from both sides of a home and the outside shower does, as well. He gave a low estimate of 300 to 400 homes with such connections, though he said it wasn’t clear whether some of the downspouts were still connected.

While those existing connections are grandfathered, the Town now prohibits new connections of outside showers and downspouts going into the canals, and efforts have since focused on persuading the grandfathered home owners to make the switch to on-property drainage or storage of stormwater and shower water.

Junkin said the Town would also be seeking volunteers with boats to pick up trash while they’re out, furthering efforts to clean up the canals.