South Bethany council approves pilot project for canal

South Bethany Town Council members voted 5-2 on April 13 to approve funding for a pilot project that would install six diffusers along the Anchorage or Petherton canals as a way, it is hoped, to improve water quality in the canals.

Councilman George Junkin acknowledged in requesting the line item be added back into the proposed budget that the council had previously been split on the idea, and not in its favor. In fact, at their last discussion, Councilman Jim Gross said, four council members had opposed spending town funds on the project, while three had been in favor of it. And Gross had been one of those opposed.

“I have received additional information from George since then, including information about the costs and case studies, and I have changed my mind. I now support the project,” Gross said.

Councilman Al Rae said he, too, had changed his mind and now supported the project, for much the same reasons as Gross. And the lingering nature of the issue was Rae’s bottom line.

“I don’t want to wait another two years to find out” if the concept will work, he said. “We’ll be two years ahead of the game if it does work.”

Under the pilot project, a compressor will be installed next to the power/light pole at the end of the canal, with six weighted air lines connecting it to each of the six diffusers, which will be placed 200 feet away from each other, in a line running 1,200 feet down the canal. The diffusers, which will stick above the canal bottom by about 6 inches, will then be used to add bubbles of air to the water column, which will help the water circulate and thus improve its quality, Junkin and others hope.

The diffuser system adds air to the water, as is commonly done in home aquariums. The rising air causes the water to circulate, as well as getting more oxygen into the water through the bubbles and by bringing water more regularly to the surface, where it can be exposed to the air. In fact, Junkin said, a diffuser gets more oxygen into the water by moving the water to the surface than through the bubbles it creates.

The cost of the installation runs about $23,000 per canal, between the equipment and installation (about $20,000) and the electricity and maintenance costs (another $3,000). Junkin asked for that amount to be placed in the budget so the pilot project would be guaranteed to get started in the coming year, even if hoped-for grant funding does not come to the town.

Council members, on the basis of that original 4-3 split of the council, had initially stricken the pilot project from the budget for the 2013 fiscal year, but Junkin’s educational effort swayed them to put it back in, on a 5-2 vote, before the council voted 6-1 to adopt the budget on April 13.

Junkin said the pilot project was proposed under the notion that the town’s canals essentially function as stormwater management ponds, due to the lack of circulation in the water – particularly farther away from the Little Assawoman Bay, as is the case in the Anchorage and Petherton canals.

Diffusers are already in use in stormwater ponds in a number of area communities, including some in Rehoboth Beach, and the nearby Southhampton and The Refuge communities, and Junkin invited interested citizens to visit the installation at Southhampton, off Beaver Dam Road, which he said they might be able to hear from the road.

He emphasized that the noise from the diffusers would be “nothing like” the noise generated by an aerator – another device with potential use for the improvement of canal water quality but one that proved disappointing in a prior test, in which it moved the water only a fraction of what had been hoped.

“The data supports diffusers as the best solution for maintenance of stormwater ponds,” Junkin emphasized.

The real question mark for the project – and a primary reason the current plan is only for a single-canal pilot project – is whether South Bethany’s canals will function the same with the diffusers in place as the stormwater ponds do. Junkin said they’re far narrower and longer than the average stormwater pond, which will make the diffuser system less efficient. The plan for six diffusers per canal is in consideration of that lack of efficiency. Most stormwater ponds use fewer diffusers in their water-circulation systems, with some employing a single diffuser.

Junkin noted extensive impacts from the man-made canals’ poor water circulation.

“The east end has significantly lower dissolved oxygen than the other ends,” he said. “The algae growth is worse. There is no circulation in the east end,” he emphasized. “There is higher water quality where it circulates,” Junkin added of the areas closer to the bay.

In proposing the town fund the pilot project, Junkin noted potential negatives that he said had been mention to him during his fact-finding.

“If it works, everyone will want them,” he offered, leading to more costs for an expanded project that the town could afford.

But Junkin said he disagreed. “It is affordable,” he argued. “It can be funded. That’s a problem I would love to have,” he said of a potentially successful and popular program.

Junkin said the town, too, would have to wait and see if the pilot project confirms that the diffuser system works as well in its canals as they do in stormwater management ponds. He said he believed they will, after all his research into the proposition, but some experts have said they don’t agree.

Mayor Jay Headman disagreed.

“They do want to improve water quality,” he said. “I don’t think they have an ulterior motive to say not to support it.”

Junkin said some opposed it on the basis of a belief that it won’t work in the canals due to the tidal action of the canal waters.

“The data indicates they function as stormwater ponds, but we can’t prove that. We need the pilot project to gather data that shows diffusers do what they do in stormwater management ponds, or if they don’t.”

Junkin acknowledged that, even if the diffusers do work to improve canal water quality, it still isn’t a perfect solution.

“It won’t do it as good as the tidal pump, but it won’t cost $7 million, either,” he added.

The proposed tidal pump project, which would have interchanged water between the canals and the ocean through a system of conduits running from the canals to the beach, has been on the town’s back burner for quite some time, due to that potential cost. The town found little interest in grant funding for the tidal pump project, due to the limited impact within the town itself and despite the potential it held as a pilot project for similar problems elsewhere.

The comparatively inexpensive diffuser pilot project, however, got enough support this week to move forward without grants, though Junkin has applied for a grant through the EPA, upon which a decision could be made this summer. If the grant application is successful, the funds would be used to offset the cost the town is now taking on its own shoulders.

Junkin addresses concerns, finds support

Junkin said the diffusers would be run 24 hours a day at first, starting in the winter or spring, rather than in the summer, because the start-up of the diffuser system will stir up decayed material and nutrient-laden water, bringing a “sewer-like” odor to the surface at first. Starting in the winter and spring allows the odor to come out more slowly and more consistently, since the water is less stratified at those times.

Asked about the potential for the compressors to bother residents due to noise, Junkin said they make only about as much noise as a window air-conditioning unit and will be about 100 feet from any houses, reducing the noise significantly.

Councilwoman Sue Callaway last Friday reiterated her support for the project, which is related to the bio-retention project that her Community Enhancement Committee has been working on in the last year.

“We would continue to do the dual process with the bio-retention areas,” she said. “This is not a single approach. I look at this as being both prevention and active approaches. We are committed to seeking grant funds and other resources, and if we’re successful [with the pilot project], we will be in a much better position to seek funding support.”

Callaway said she also felt the project could have a positive impact on property values and tourism in the town, “But we can’t do that unless we have one success under our belt.”

Opponents question expense

Councilwoman Pat Voveris, on the other hand, expressed her continued opposition to funding the pilot project.

“I haven’t changed my opposition, after my research,” Voveris said. “We still have another study on the east side to be done before we can try implementation,” she said of potential mechanical solutions to the town’s water-quality issues. “All I read [about use of diffusers] was on lakes and ponds. And a lot of this information is proprietary. It comes from people who want to sell us diffusers.

“People who are into water quality are into water quality,” she added in response to Junkin’s suggestion of bias. “They aren’t going to discount the canals.”

Mayor Jay Headman, too, was opposed to funding the pilot project, though for one specific reason.

“I’ve worked with George on this since 2006,” he noted. “Two years ago, I supported it. And I would not be in opposition if we had lots of money. But my concern is that our approach has been to reduce the amount of nutrients going into the canals. … They say, ‘Take care of the pollution that’s going into your canals.’ We just spent money on the Anchorage drainage program,” he added, “to take all that pollution out of the canal.”

Headman spoke of cooperative efforts between the Town, the Middlesex community, Sea Colony, DelDOT and DNREC to reduce the nutrients flowing along Route 1 into the South Bethany canals.

“Sea Colony is a major contributor” to that pollution, Headman noted. “We need a stormwater pond in front of that highrise. They’ve met with DelDOT to get their support on the project, which would reduce the load of nitrogen and phosphorus coming into town. The west side of Middlesex dumps into our little pipe and rolls into the Anchorage canal.

“We’ve done the work on the bio-retention areas and the median strips, because the previous work only impacted the Anchorage canal,” he added. “The bio-retention project will impact everything to the south, the majority of the canals. And we still have to take care of the pollution from the east side of town.”

Headman noted that one study had reported that 21 percent of the town’s stormwater is going right into the canals.

“We still have to look at the current stormwater system and ways to improve it. It wasn’t until we did the retrofit projects on the stormwater systems that we started to address stormwater going right into the canal,” he added of past efforts.

Headman said he’d been told by experts that the diffusers’ primary use isn’t to get rid of algae, as nutrients will sit in the shallow dead-ends.

“The scientists said, ‘If you’re going to spend money, that $23,000 should go to a review of the east side, and work from there.’”

While resident Barbara Jayne said she opposed the expense because the diffusers hadn’t been proven to work outside stormwater ponds, resident Tom Roach said he felt the pilot project was the way to go to see if diffusers will help the town address its water quality issues.

“Almost every year, we have complaints about algae, and $23,000 is a cheap way to go to see if it will solve our problem, if adequate data can be gathered in one year,” he said. Though the funding authorizes the pilot project to operate for two years, Rae said, “I would hope in one year it would demonstrate sufficiently so we can get it funded for the second year and beyond.”

Another resident said, “It’s way past time we start doing something really productive in the canals. It’s so bad that if I was a younger man, I’d just leave. I like water, and I like good quality water.”

The council voted 5-2, with Voveris and Headman opposed, to add the funding for the pilot project back into the 2013 budget.