Fate of Lehigh Parkway dam in Mayor Ed Pawlowski's hands

Published: Aug 29 2013 07:09:24 AM EDT   Updated On: Aug 29 2013 07:11:32 AM EDT
Dam in Lehigh Parkway-- Robin Hood area
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

The fate of Robin Hood dam in Allentown’s Lehigh Parkway remained murky following an informal public hearing by City Council’s parks and recreation committee Wednesday evening.

The decision on whether the dam should be removed ultimately is up to Mayor Ed Pawlowski, said committee chairwoman Cynthia Mota at the end of the hour-long meeting.

“It’s not our call,” agreed committee member Ray O’Connell.

“We have nothing to vote on tonight,” confirmed committee member Peter Schweyer. “It is ultimately the administration’s responsibility to make this decision.”

Pawlowski, who was not at the meeting, later said he has not changed his position that the dam across Little Lehigh Creek should be removed.

But the mayor added he wants to review facts presented at the meeting and will make an announcement by the end of this week.

The city has been working with Wildlands Conservancy since 2009 to secure funding and permits to remove the Robin Hood dam, as well as others in the Little Lehigh watershed, and the mayor repeatedly has expressed his support.

In 2010, for example, Pawlowski wrote: “The eventual removal of the dams in question would without doubt be the most significant step toward the restoration of the Little Lehigh Watershed ever undertaken. The City of Allentown is proud to partner with Wildlands Conservancy in this endeavor.”

And in April 2012, the mayor wrote: “I strongly support Wildlands Conservancy’s effort to restore the Little Lehigh Creek watershed through dam removal.”

Plans to remove the Robin Hood dam this summer were put on hold after city resident Michael Molovinsky raised concerns at a City Council meeting in May.

On Wednesday, Molovinsky, the most vocal opponent to removing the dam, told the parks committee he hopes the mayor “will decide on the side of the people and keep that dam for the beauty and the ambience it provides the Lehigh Parkway.”

The city’s administration decided not to proceed with removing the dam until Mota’s committee held what she called a public hearing to get more facts about both sides of the issue.

Several top administrators were at the meeting, including managing director Francis Dougherty, parks and recreation director John Mikowychok and public works director Richard Young.

Said Dougherty: “The administration does declare once again that we are indifferent at this moment and we are here to learn as well.”

Mikowychok, the parks director, said the issue comes down to “sentiment vs. science.”

He said dams are being removed everywhere, but particularly in Pennsylvania, which had water-powered mills “about every quarter mile on the major streams of this Commonwealth” before the Industrial Revolution.

Mikowychok suggested photographs on interpretative signs could tell people about the Robin Hood dam if most of it is removed.

All seven members of City Council attended the meeting in City Hall, although only Mota, O‘Connell and Schweyer sat at the dais.

At the end of the meeting, Schweyer said the Robin Hood dam is a beautiful spot in the Parkway, “but a free-flowing creek is every bit as beautiful.” He predicted the aesthetics will not be diminished if the creek is flowing “faster, cleaner and clearer.”

Mota and O’Connell declined to share their own opinions on removing the dam.
The administration also delayed removing another dam farther upstream in the Parkway, near the trout nursery, until the council committee meeting. But no one is challenging the removal of that dam, which is just off Fish Hatchery Road.

Three local professors encouraged the city to remove the dams: Frank Kuserk, who is a biology professor at Moravian College, where he is director of the Environmental Studies Program; Richard Nissenbaum, professor of biology and environmental studies at Muhlenberg College and a member of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council, and Joseph Colosi, professor of biology at DeSales University, where he teaches environmental science.

Conservancy vs. Molovinsky

“I’m really hoping you guys will agree to continue to do this type of work, that you’ll grant permission for us to do the remaining dam removals on the Little Lehigh,” Abigail Pattishall, vice president of conservation at Wildlands Conservancy, told the council committee.

Pattishall said removing dams will greatly improve water quality and the biological health of the stream.

She also said the dams present public safety hazards and liability issues for their owners. She said the Robin Hood dam is dangerous, with slippery rocks, jagged concrete and fast-moving water.

After Pattishall spoke, Molovinsky complimented Wildlands Conservancy “on a full-blown propaganda presentation. It was very well done.”

Molovinsky, who was not accompanied by any group of “save the dam” supporters, accused the conservancy of stacking the deck at the meeting with people who share its position.

He said most people go to the Parkway for its beauty and tranquility “and that’s what that dam provides. That dam is part of the picture at that location.”

Molovinsky said children have been swimming below that dam for 50 years “and there’s never been any problem, never been any danger. The liability issue isn’t relevant, certainly not to the point that they harped on it. There’s never been an incident there, so I don’t think they should have put the fear of God in you in terms of liability.”

Pattishall said the city does not want people swimming there and has posted signs warning them not to do so.

While the conservancy and others argued that removing the dam will improve habitat for fish, Molovinsky said the Little Lehigh is stocked and “the banks of that creek are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with fishermen when fishing season begins. So obviously there’s no shortage of fish.”

Mario Spagnoletti, who claimed he fishes in that part of the Little Lehigh every day, said the creek contains cold-water-loving native brown trout, not just stocked fish.

He also took issue with Molovinsky’s comment that the conservancy was offering propaganda.

No threat to Robin Hood bridge

In May, Molovinsky warned City Council that removing the dam might jeopardize the Robin Hood bridge that crosses the Little Lehigh just above it.

Pattishall said the conservancy’s engineering investigation took an extensive look at that bridge, which she said was built long before the dam, and determined removing the dam will have no impact on the bridge. She said results of that investigation have been shared with the city’s public works department and indicated city engineers agree with its conclusion.

Is dam historically significant?

Molovinsky initially claimed the federal Works Progress Administration built the dam in 1936, during the Depression.

But Pattishall said the dam is not historic. She said it was built by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1945 to create a flat water area where it could monitor stream flow.

U.S.G.S. still has a water metering station at Robin Hood dam, which Pattishall said will be recalibrated and continue to be used after the dam is removed.

Pattishall said the state’s Historical and Museum Commission has reviewed the project and “officials determined there were no historic impacts at all.”

Molovinsky now argues both the dam and bridge were built in 1941, saying the conservancy has no documentation it was built in 1945.

Sediment threatens water plant?

Molovinsky also is concerned that removing the dam will release sediment trapped above it, which will threaten intakes at the city’s water treatment plant farther downstream.

“There’s not much sediment behind the dam and it would not transport that far downstream,” said Pattishall.

But Mike Siegel, president of the Little Lehigh Watershed Coalition, said the creek just above the dam “is extremely full of silt.”

Joseph McMahon, the city’s former water resources manager, said the water treatment plant temporarily can shut down if sediment from Robin Hood dam migrates that far downstream. McMann said the plant does not need to operate all the time because the city can hold plenty of water in its reservoirs.

Regarding water quality, Molovinsky said a sewer line runs along the creek and overflows in heavy rains, putting large amounts of sewage into the creek. He said the city is under a federal Environmental Protection Agency mandate to correct that situation by next year.

McMahon said those sewage overflows usually happen a couple of times a year and are unrelated to the issue of removing dams. In fact, he said a dam may hold those bacterial pollutants in stagnant warm water where they will reproduce.

Jan Keim of Salisbury Township, a longtime advocate for improving water quality in the Little Lehigh, said she supports removing dams but added Molovinsky “has a great point” about the Robin Hood dam. She suggested removing only the center of the dam.

Molivinsky even has argued against removing the dam because doing so will change the the sound of the creek.

Wildlands Conservancy already has removed one city dam in Jordan Park and plans to remove three more owned by Whitehall Township on Jordan Creek this summer.

In addition to the two Parkway dams, Pattishall said it will remove a private dam across the Little Lehigh and another owned by Lower Macungie Township.