‘They look like little floating islands’: South Bethany upgrades canals, more plants, less soil (copy)

South Bethany installed plants in its canals in 2018, hoping they'd help clean the stagnant water in the mostly dead-end canals. But the town continues to battle problems with algae and grasses in the canals that have most often been dealt with just once a year, via the State of Delaware's algae harvester.

The South Bethany Town Council is considering investing $150,000 in an algae harvester machine, conveyor belt, hauling trailer, and parts and accessories, in order to harvest and remove unsightly algal bloom and its spoils from its canals.

Mayor Tim Saxton said, “This is the first time that DNREC has ever been approached by a town about taking on its own algae removal.”

Council Member Tim Shaw, who is the council liaison to the Town’s Canal Water Quality Committee (CWQC), said, “The Town is considering taking it on. We have also talked with Fenwick Island about sharing loads and helping with their removal.”

“Come spring, we don’t want our canals filled with slime, and we are not able to count on DNREC after they had an equipment breakdown here last year,” said Shaw.

The South Bethany CWQC submitted five options to the Town Council on Tuesday, Oct. 18, ranging from “no change” and continuing to rely upon DNREC for algal harvesting, to “buy equipment and hire staff,” with incremental upgrades in between those goals.

Saxton, seeking a consensus, said he would rather contract the algae harvesting and disposal to bidders, such as Envirotech, for the first year and “do it a week before Memorial Day. Last year, the algae came fast and furious.”

He noted that setting a date and contracting with service providers who can manage a harvester would be the most expedient way to ensure clean canals.

The major roadblock is not the collection and transportation using the Town’s existing dump truck, nor is it really the training and labor associated with harvesting dead or decaying and putrid algae slime. The real issue is disposing of the spoils. A likely dumping ground is near the Salt Pond, near a bio-degradation area that currently hosts the spent oyster shells for the Center for the Inland Bays.

Saxton noted that the State’s parks and recreation division is part of DNREC.

“I think we will get there working with the park staff, but if we have to go all the way to Shawn Garvin at DNREC, I have no problem with writing that letter.”

Saxton said the collaboration should work because Town of South Bethany is “trying to take a problem off your back” for DNREC by eventually becoming self-sufficient on harvesting and removing algae.

The devil is in the details, and CWQC Chairman Chris Vanuga joined the council workshop virtually to provide the answers to possible scenarios. Both Shaw and Council Member Derek Abbott serve on the CWQC and provided insights to the mayor and council members.

The first question posed by Council Member Edie Dondero was about how best to access the canals, assuming a South Bethany-managed harvesting process.

“We certainly won’t be landlocked,” Shaw said.

Possible launch-area options for the harvester watercraft include Double Bridges Road or Harpoon Hanna’s, or Derek Abbott’s suggested launch area off the Little Assawoman Bay. Some on the CWQC even offered use of their own ramps, if it means cleaner canals.

The planning calls for 16 weeks, or four months, of continuous work in the spring and summer to ensure algal bloom is captured by harvester and disposed of at a drying location. The hourly rate and costs for labor were calculated as $8,100 for the laborer and $10,000 for the harvester operator. Vanuga said the hourly rate was $15.50 per hour for the disposal crew and $20 per hour for the trained and certified water harvester operator.

Dondero noted that, “DNREC used to conduct the harvest for a week or up to two weeks, so I would ask if there is really enough work to hire people for four months.”

Vanuga noted the staffing scenario was based on obtaining seasonal workers, ensuring the training and certifications by the Coast Guard and other considerations. Shaw added that DNREC has been very cooperative and offered to provide some training on the equipment, which is similar to harvesters used by the State. The DNREC harvesters are between 10 and 15 years old.

Abbott said the manufacturing company, based in Canada, could also provide training to any future South Bethany seasonal public works staff.

“DNREC said they will help and support us,” said Shaw, “and our team will do better after working and training on the equipment.”

He noted that state staff, including Jesse Hayden, environmental program administrator for DNREC, said they would work extra hours in the spring if South Bethany made a commitment to equip itself.

Saxton clarified that, “DNREC has an algae-harvesting program. If we asked them to come, they will, and it’s a priority listing of towns for service. The beaches up north take the higher or first priority.”

Abbott said the lot at Fred Hudson Road at the Salt Pond makes the most sense for disposal.

“It’s right by the oyster shucks storage, and we would front load the spoils or use the conveyor belt to get them off our town dump truck,” he said. “When the algae is dry, it is a lot like cotton candy” in texture.

The council also debated whether private contractor Envirotech or perhaps the CIB would be able to dispose of the dead algal spoils.

“DNREC may say you cannot de-water on our land,” said Shaw, noting that his CWQC team had located five companies that will take the dead algae for a disposal fee.

The final action is subject to a town council vote to be held in November or December.

Staff Reporter

Mike has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern and is a 25-year member of the National Press Club. He has won four national writing awards for editorial work. He is a native of McLean, Va., and lives in Millville.