City making plans to partly remove Pennypack dam

A Pennypack Creek dam where a loc­al teen died in Ju­ly will be lowered by sev­er­al feet, elim­in­at­ing the swim­ming hole that has long at­trac­ted kids.

The work at the dam that’s just west of the Roosevelt Boulevard won’t even get star­ted next year and, pos­sibly, not in 2015 either. Designs must be com­pleted. State per­mits must be ar­ranged, and money must be ob­tained.

None of that is done quickly.

For po­lice, pub­lic of­fi­cials and par­ents, the dam is a safety con­cern. It cre­ates a pool of wa­ter that backs up to a foot­bridge that crosses the creek. It’s from that bridge that kids leap or dive in­to the wa­ter that is deep­er there than it is in most oth­er parts of the creek.

The dam has been a hot spot for swim­mers and thrill seekers who want to go over the falls, Capt. Joseph Zaffino, the 7th Dis­trict’s com­mand­er, told North­east Times re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny in Ju­ly. 

Thir­teen-year-old Brandon Boyle jumped in­to the rain-swollen creek near the dam on Ju­ly 1. Brandon’s 11-year-old broth­er, An­thony, also went in­to the wa­ter. He was res­cued. Brandon’s body was found along the creek’s banks on Ju­ly 4. Po­lice res­cued two teens from the creek a month earli­er.

In 2010, 20-year-old Saul­i­us Kvara­ciejus tried to ride an in­flat­able pool over the dam and van­ished in the wa­ter. 

The dam can be de­cept­ive. After a heavy rain, the wa­ter on the dam’s east side is al­most as high as it is on the creek’s ap­proach from the west.

Stand­ing on the snowy and icy banks of the dam on Dec. 18, Tom Wit­mer de­scribed a much dif­fer­ent scene once the dam’s walls are cut down 3.9 feet. Rocks will build up on the east side of the dam to­ward the re­main­ing wall to form a ramp that will carry wa­ter away, said Wit­mer, dir­ect­or of nat­ur­al re­sources for the city’s De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation. Lower­ing the dam’s wall will make the wa­ter un­der the bridge shal­low­er and also will elim­in­ate the deep pool on the dam’s west side, so there won’t be a swim­ming hole for kids to dive or jump in­to from the nearby foot­bridge.

“Of course, dur­ing floods, the wa­ter level will rise sig­ni­fic­antly,” Wit­mer said in a Dec. 20 email to the North­east Times.

Wit­mer said the cost of the pro­ject won’t be de­term­ined un­til designs are com­plete and bids are so­li­cited. 

The dam is in Coun­cil­man Bri­an O’Neill’s 10th dis­trict, and the coun­cil­man’s primary con­cern is safety, said his aide, Robert Yerkov.

But that’s not the only in­terest.

There is a Phil­adelphia Wa­ter De­part­ment sew­er line that runs un­der the creek above the dam, said Laura Craig, as­sist­ant dir­ect­or of river res­tor­a­tion for the non­profit Amer­ic­an Rivers and Streams. If the dam were re­moved com­pletely, the wa­ter level would go down enough to ex­pose the line, she said.

Full re­mov­al of the dam would be best, said Ben­jamin Lor­son, a bio­lo­gist with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Com­mis­sion, be­cause it would give aquat­ic life free­dom of move­ment on the wa­ter­way. Lor­son checked out the Pennypack dam on Dec. 18 along with Wit­mer, Yerkov, Craig and Gleim En­vir­on­ment­al Group dir­ect­or Stephanie Rider.

“A nat­ur­ally func­tion­ing stream sys­tem provides healthy hab­it­at for the nat­ur­al aquat­ic com­munit­ies to in­hab­it,” Lor­son said in a Dec. 19 email to the North­east Times. “In ad­di­tion, those aquat­ic spe­cies can move freely with­in the sys­tem to seek the con­di­tions ne­ces­sary for their sur­viv­al.”

Amer­ic­an Rivers provided tech­nic­al ex­pert­ise to the city in re­mov­al of Pennypack dams at Rhawn Street and Frank­ford Av­en­ue, Craig said. The dam near the Boulevard is the only one right now that blocks the pas­sage of fish through the wa­ter­way, she said. The dam near Ver­ree Road has been breached, but there also is a chan­nel that runs along the creek so fish can swim from one side of the dam to the oth­er.

Wit­mer said the Wa­ter De­part­ment is pay­ing for design and en­gin­eer­ing, but the city doesn’t have the funds yet to start the pro­ject. Craig said her non­profit, a na­tion­al river con­ser­va­tion group, also helps se­cure fund­ing. She said there are state and fed­er­al grants to seek. Once the money is in place, Wit­mer said, con­struc­tion would be­gin with­in a year. ••

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