Bethany West becomes focus for flooding

Pennsylvania Avenue is Bethany Beach’s most notorious area for major flooding problems, but those visiting the town’s post office during heavy rain events will have to wait a little longer for any attempts at improvement.
Engineers have re-evaluated the potential for improvements there, and in other flood-prone areas of the town, and a Pennsylvania Avenue project wasn’t deemed to provide the most “bang for the bucks,” according to Town Council Member and Flood Mitigation and Drainage Committee Chairman Harold Steele.

Instead, the town’s new prioritized list of eight proposed drainage projects features the southwest corner of Bethany West as its top priority, designated Area No. 1.

Pennsylvania Avenue dropped to the bottom of the list (No. 7a), right behind an altered proposal for an inflatable dam on the Loop Canal (No. 7) — largely due to problems that mean previously proposed solutions simply wouldn’t work there and the realization that any attempted solution is going to be very expensive.

In between the two projects on the priority list are areas running from Bethany West to the Loop Canal — totaling more than $4.3 million in estimated costs for all eight project areas. As presented at the Nov. 17 committee meeting, the overall plan was broken up into pieces to make the costs and oversight a bit more manageable for the town.

Already set to go is work at area No. 1, with bid packages available and awaiting bids by contractors who will do the work to improve drainage in the area in southwestern-most Bethany West, near one of the development’s sets of tennis courts and bordering the Assawoman Canal.

The estimated cost for the project is $110,000, with the final cost to be determined. Steele asked for, and received, council’s near-unanimous agreement at their Nov. 18 meeting to pay for the project and neighboring area No. 2 with funds previously allocated for work at Pennsylvania Avenue. (Council Member Wayne Fuller abstained from voting on the move, saying he wanted to study the whole plan more before deciding even on re-allocating the funding for areas 1 and 2.)

The work entails reworking swales and adding additional pipes and storm sewers to move stormwater out more quickly and avoid ponding during major rainstorms. It — like the rest of the project — is designed to handle a 2-inch rainfall over a 24-hour period and generally speed up the removal of all rain that hits the ground. The water for the first three areas will be taken to an Assawoman Canal outfall, where it currently simply can’t reach.

Public Works Director Brett Warner said one of the reasons area No. 1 had received focus from the engineers at Kercher Engineering Inc. during the prioritization was that the streets tend to become covered by water, producing dangerous conditions for drivers — especially with winter’s freezing temperatures already nudging into the area.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet noted that the areas of top priority were also seeing more than just a little street flooding, with water rising up under the foundations of homes to cause problems with water damage, mold and mildew.

The second area of Bethany West to receive focus will aim for improvements leading to the Tudor Court ditch, while No. 3 will complete work on the southernmost end of Bethany West, at a cost of approximately $335,000. That third project has not yet gone out to bid, nor have funds been allocated for it just yet. (Steele told council members Nov. 18 to expect him to return to them with a request for the third set of funds.)

Area No. 4 is where things get really interesting. The large expanse of land in No. 4 runs from just south of Route 26, jutting into central portions of Bethany West, all the way to the Loop Canal. It aims to address not just Bethany West but also the flood-prone areas of Evans Avenue and Tingle Road, as well as Weigand and Gibson Avenue, which border the Loop Canal.

Accordingly, the estimated cost of improvements there rises up to $750,000.

But the benefits of the No. 4 area project go beyond simply helping to drain that large area of the town. According to Warner, if area No. 4 is not done, water in other areas of the town will have nowhere to go. That means that before the areas designed as No. 5, 6 and 7a are done, No. 4 must be done first.

That project will involve deep-laid pipes that will run stormwater into the canal, Warner said.

On the subject of the canal, Steele clarified how plans for an inflatable dam at the mouth of the Loop Canal at its intersection with the Assawoman Canal had fallen apart. As Steele had repeatedly promised, if study of the dam concept showed it would help solve Bethany’s problems at the cost of causing problems for others, the town wouldn’t let that happen.

Specifically, the most recent engineering study of the dam showed that properties along Riga Drive would be negatively impacted if the dam were installed where it was planned. While no one would have been flooded out of their homes, water from the Assawoman Canal would have risen to surround some of the homes, KEI engineers projected.

And most eastward locations in the Loop Canal would instead cause problems at Cove Bay and the Fresh Pond area, necessitating mitigation steps there, too.

“The more we studied it, the worse it got,” Steele allowed. So he lived up to his promise and dropped the concept, even though it had long been considered Pennsylvania Avenue’s best hope for improvement.

With the dam in place, there was not only less tidal flooding from the Assawoman Canal, but also the potential to lower the level of the Loop Canal to where rainwater on Pennsylvania Avenue could have been piped or pumped there to alleviate flooding.

Without the dam, the cost proved prohibitive — more than $1 million to alleviate only a three quarter-inch rainfall over 24 hours and likely requiring berming of the entire Loop Canal to increase its storage capacity. Combine that rain with a tidal flooding event, and the work wouldn’t have any impact at all, Warner said.

Engineers also advised giving up on the idea of an ocean outfall for Pennsylvania Avenue – estimated to cost $5 million and require tremendous work to obtain the needed permits.

The culling of those possibilities meant some $450,000 earmarked for work on Pennsylvania Avenue’s flooding problems has been just sitting idle in the town’s bank accounts for more than two years and now had nowhere to go.

With their vote at the Nov. 18 meeting, council members re-allocated enough of those funds to cover estimated costs for areas No. 1 and No. 2. The remaining $155,000 will await the next phase of the overall plan.

It may sound as if the town is giving up on Pennsylvania Avenue. But KEI’s study — which included some 10,000 shots from a geographical survey — suggested there might be another possibility for the dam and the Pennsylvania Avenue project.

Instead of installing the inflatable dam at the intersection of the two canals, it could be moved to the east inside the Loop Canal, at a point off Evans Road, where the waters it shunted off wouldn’t back up toward Riga Drive, Fresh Pond or other inhabited areas that would flood as a result. The new location would shunt the tidal surge from the Assawoman Canal toward Salt Pond instead.

While residents of the pond’s namesake community might be concerned that the same flooding could result there, Steele said there is no need to worry. Salt Pond is a large body of water and has more than enough spare capacity to easily handle any additional load from the dam, according to engineers.

And kayakers can also heave a sigh of relief. When and if the dam is built, its inflatable design means it will rest far enough under the water to allow passage — except when it is raised during the time of major storms, when tidal flooding is expected and the town will need to be protected. At those times, Steele said, boaters wouldn’t want to be on the water anyway.

As for the impact of the dam on Pennsylvania Avenue’s flooding woes — Steele said if the dam were inflated just prior to an anticipated tidal storm surge, it would have the effect of lowering the level of water in the Loop Canal’s eastern end, making room in the canal itself to store floodwaters that could then be piped (not pumped, meaning a higher system cost) out of the flood-plagued Pennsylvania Avenue area.

The new location for the dam could also provide additional relief for area No. 4, Steele said, but the project planned there works with or without the dam, meaning the dam could be left until later and the vital work on No. 4 done first so projects in No. 5 and No. 6 ($150,000 and $85,000, respectively) can be effective.

So, the town’s plan now calls for tackling areas No. 1 and No. 2 as soon as possible. Just how the remaining project areas will be funded remains to be seen. The $155,000 is a starting point for No. 3’s projected $335,000 cost. But Graviet said the town simply doesn’t have the funds to pay the estimated $4.34 million that would cover the whole eight-point plan. They have to start somewhere – namely with areas No. 1 and 2.

Thus, with funding now allocated for those areas, the town will be seeking state and federal funds to pay for as much of the various projects as possible — particularly the dam. They will also be seeking public input to guide just how the town tackles the whole concept.

While work is going into those southern areas of Bethany West, research will be done on grant possibilities and further engineering studies will be done on the details behind the remaining project areas — including the proposed dam and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Graviet noted that the major question to answer regarding those last two projects (designated 7 and 7a) was whether the town wanted to tackle the problem at all, considering the estimated $1.125 million cost for the dam and $1.6 million for Pennsylvania Avenue. If the town does nothing about it, can it live with the flooding? That is what it has done for a long time, Graviet noted.

As the time comes to start on No. 3, the town will have to potentially consider funding steps such as a bond bill or temporary tax increase (for, say, two years) just to fund the flood-mitigation projects that are not paid for with grants.

Graviet said he believed the first six areas of the project were financially doable if divided up into the project areas and done over the course of six or so years. He said he believed federal funding would be needed to tackle the dam. And state funding is a distinct possibility for area No. 4, due to the large area and its big impact on the town’s overall flooding problem.

Steele noted that the Army Corps of Engineers aims for a 1:1 cost-benefit ratio when determine what projects it should support. The original dam plan came in at a nearly 1:3 ratio, expected to pay off in $3 of protection for every $1 spent.

In the short term, Steele said he plans meetings with property owners and residents in Bethany West, to not only keep them informed as to the plan to help alleviate their flooding but to enlist their aid in improving the situation and keeping it functioning once the work is done.

Steele again noted that some of the problems had been exacerbated by property owners not maintaining the swales that had been built in the community. Some were filled in, others used for dumping yard waste and still others simply not kept clear from the normal ravages of time and nature.

Warner said it was technically the responsibility of the property owners to maintain the swales between their property lines, though the public works crew has been making major strides in alleviating some flooding in the town by reworking the swales and clearing many of them out.

The workers have successfully tackled 11 of the initial priorities defined when the town initially made a push toward flood mitigation.

And work on another area — at Candlelight Lane — was to be tackled the week after Thanksgiving, Warner noted. The project was set before the rest of Bethany West because it was discovered that a drainage pipe had somehow been placed well outside the town’s right-of-way.

Instead of being at the edge of a property on the street, it had been placed right in the center — in the way of planned construction. So the town coordinated the moving of the existing pipe to the right-of-way with additional work needed to improve drainage on the street. Now, the drain pipes will run the water toward Route 26 and established drains.

Steele praised the work of Warner and his crew, calling it outstanding. Warner said the town was really starting to get somewhere with the drainage issues.

Bethany West resident Lonnie Moore, newly appointed to the committee, commented that he felt the town’s taxpayers were really having the promises made to them by town officials fulfilled, with the recent razing of the old bandstand in favor of a new bandstand and the work on the flooding issues.

Amid the congratulatory tone, Graviet emphasized that he wanted to set realistic expectations for the flood and drainage situation in the town.

“We are surrounded on three side by water,” he said. “Some of these things we can take care of. Some we cannot.”

Which of the town’s new stormwater management plans come to fruition and how much they help the various problem areas will only be seen over time. But the town this week took a step forward in what is bound to be a long process.