F.E.W. Dam Re-Evaluation Study
On September 25th, 2019 an agreement was signed to re-evaluate the management and use of water storage in the Francis E. Walter (F.E.W.) Dam on the Lehigh River. This has the potential to significantly impact and alter recreation and the ecological health of the Lehigh River for generations to come. This also presents an opportunity to address major issues which are holding the Lehigh fishery back from become a world class wild trout destination.
The study is being managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), who own and manage F.E.W Dam. New York City (NYC) is the primary non-Federal sponsor ($1.4 million) along with Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) ($25,000). The DRBC & NYC wish to explore allocating water storage in the F.E.W Reservoir for use in the Delaware River basin flow plan. Currently the DRBC can only request storage (up to 1392’) in F.E.W Reservoir when drought conditions are declared, otherwise water storage in the reservoir is up to the discretion of USACE for flood control, recreation, and conservation uses.
DRBC's Current Water Storage Authority
FAQ's from USACE
Background History F.E.W. Dam
The F.E.W. Dam was constructed on the Lehigh River in 1961 for the purpose of flood control, and was not designed to support the Lehigh River’s cold-water ecosystem. It was built with only the ability to release water from the very bottom of the reservoir. (See Diagram Below) For years dam operations were run of the river, except in times of flood control. With the pool level maintained at 1300’ the small reservoir would warm the water before passing it downstream. The wild fishery struggled under these conditions. A major breakthrough occurred in 1988, recreation became a congressionally authorized purpose of F.E.W Dam. Collaboration between the USACE, conservation groups, and the public, led to the creation of flow plans resulting in a robust white-water boating industry along with only modest improvements to the wild and stocked trout fishery.
Another breakthrough came in 2005, when the dam road crossing the dam at mid height was re-located to the top of the dam. This allowed for seasonally raising the pool level 70', with the water to be used for recreation and the fishery. Still the biggest impediment to further improvements to the wild fishery and countless invertebrates, is the dam’s structural inability to provide year round cold-water releases, which are depleted by approximately July 1st on an annual basis. (See Temperature chart Below)
F.E.W. Dam Release Tower
Typical Water Temperature Profile, where the cold pool is exhausted by July with the current release tower in the F.E.W. dam.
55 Degrees is the optimal F.E.W. outflow water temperature for supporting the cold water ecosystem
Lehigh River Water Quality Model
Two separate water quality studies were completed in 2009 and 2013 conducted by the USACE. These studies have shown that by raising the operating level (capacity) of F.E.W Dam beyond 1370’, and installing a multi-level release tower would allow the F.E.W. Dam to conserve the cold-water pool at the bottom of the reservoir and provide consistent cold-water releases during the warmest months of the year. The results of the study have shown that a thirty-mile wild trout fishery could be created from F.E.W Dam downstream to Jim Thorpe, PA. (See Map Below) These studies have indicated that we can accomplish these significant improvements to the trout fishery without jeopardizing the whitewater rafting industry.
Lehigh as a Potential Tailwater Fishery
Economics of a Tailwater
The economics of having a tailwater fishery can be significant. Most of the destination wild trout fisheries in the Lower 48 United States are located in so- called tailwater fisheries which provide enormous economic value to the local economy. As an example, the upper Delaware River tailwater just 60 miles to the NE of the Lehigh River was responsible for an estimated $414 million in revenue in 2014 (See below) that was directly related to their trout fishery. Further expanding and increasing the cold-water ecosystem on the Lehigh river, would provide similar opportunities of community enrichment and economic success. Most importantly fishing-related businesses, hotels, restaurants, and other support services make financial commitments when a fishery is predictable, of consistent quality, and available during as much of the year as possible.
Given the Lehigh River's potential as a destination tailwater fishery, and its close proximity to Philadelphia, New York City and New Jersey, improvements to the fishery should be a high priority.
LCFA requests the following conditions of the Re-Evaluation Study
Be consistent in furthering the results and analysis of the USACE Lehigh River Water Quality Phase I (2009) & II (2013) Model studies to provide the USACE with a green environmentally sound project.
Investigate creation of a Habitat Protection Program (HPP) for the Lehigh River from the outflow of the F.E.W Dam downstream to Jim Thorpe PA. This HPP must include guidance and regulations for all aspects of water management to protect and enhance cold-water fisheries as well as aquatic community diversity within the Lehigh River.
Include an examination of structural changes to overcome the F.E.W Dam’s inability to properly reserve and utilize the reservoir’s hypolimnion, thus limiting the ability to release 68 F degree or lower throughout the year. 68 F degrees is the ideal upper limit for maintaining a healthy environment to support cold-water fish and invertebrates.
Ensure the continuation of Fishery enhancement releases in annual flow plans to provide sufficient augmented minimum flows to support a healthy wild trout population, aquatic ecosystem and to maintain lower downstream water temperatures.
Research local and regional economic impacts of a tailwater wild trout fishery from the outflow of F.E.W Dam to Northampton, PA.
Above all, make certain that any additional mandated functions or re-authorization of F.E.W Dam sustain and continue to enhance and protect the existing wild trout fishery within the Lehigh River, and are consistent with the PA Fish & Boat Commission guidance for the creation of a tailwater fishery.