Christopher Belleman climbed a steep road to the Wilkes-Barre side of the Black Diamond Bridge Monday, recalling how volunteers appeared during record 2011 Susquehanna River flooding to help close a Wyoming Valley Levee gap where an active rail line still passes through.
“We had an army of people lined up passing sandbags up the hill because of its location,” said Belleman, the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority’s executive director.
The authority, which oversees the levee, may embark on a project to reduce reliance on people to close this gap and six others when the water rises.
If the authority board opts to proceed, the complete package could cost an estimated $800,000 to $1 million, Belleman said. He advocates tackling the work in stages over several years as the authority seeks funding that may offset the cost, including a requested $600,000 flood mitigation grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Two options to eliminate sandbags have been proposed for the Black Diamond gap, said Terence Ostrowski, a project manager at Borton-Lawson in Wilkes-Barre, which completed the feasibility study,
One is a three-part gate that could be swung up and locked into place as needed, Ostrowski said. Option two is a sliding gate with a concept similar to pocket doors, he said.
Rail approval would be necessary, but neither proposal would impede the path of trains when it is not flooding, said Ostrowski and Belleman.
“We wanted something that could quickly and easily be done,” Ostrowski said.
A sliding pocket-gate has been proposed for the Edwardsville side, which also requires sandbags in a spot where the railroad cuts through the asphalt path atop the levee, the men said.
Three of the seven openings would be permanently closed under the proposal.
Two of these gaps date back to the original 1940 levee construction to accommodate rail lines that are now inactive and owned by the county Redevelopment Authority, Belleman said.
One is called the Swetland Lane closure in a remote location identified as both Wyoming and West Wyoming in authority descriptions.
Flanked by two-graffiti-covered concrete walls, this opening is approximately 39 feet wide and 11 feet high and must be closed with a cumbersome mix of support posts, braces and aluminum logs, Belleman said.
“It takes hours to assemble, and the site is hard to access,” Belleman said. “If we could eliminate that, it would be a tremendous win.”
Borton-Lawson suggests closing the opening with an anti-seepage concrete wall topped with fill that ties it in with the rest of the levee.
A permanent earthen levee is proposed for the other defunct railroad opening known as the Stites Street closure in West Wyoming.
Around 1,500 sandbags are required in a stabilizing pyramid formation during flooding to close off this opening, which is only about 2 feet high but spans 34 feet, authority records show.
The final opening that may be permanently closed is on Beade Street in Plymouth, where the road crosses through the levee. About 1,500 sandbags are required in this spot.
Borton-Lawson proposes small levee extensions and elevation of the road so it crosses at the height of the levee.
Automated gates are a possibility for the remaining two openings where roads pass through the levee — Wilkern Street in Exeter and North Railroad Street in Plymouth.
Using layman’s terms, Ostrowski said this technology involves a “bladder” component that automatically lifts a gate as it fills up with water.
Automated gates, which only require manpower to inspect and monitor them, have not been used in the Wyoming Valley Levee system but have been incorporated in projects in Bloomsburg and New York, he said.
Wilkern Street must remain open when the Susquehanna is not flooding because a cemetery, Big Top Rentals and a Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority building are on the river side of the levee, Belleman said.
At North Railroad Street, a utility building is on the river side.
An aluminum post and log system also may be feasible for both openings, which would end reliance on sandbags, Belleman said. Around 3,000 sandbags are required at the Wilkern Street location, Belleman said.
Sandbag closures should be a last resort because filling and moving the sacks — each weighing at least 50 pounds — requires labor and time that could be spent monitoring the levee, Belleman said.
In total, 7,300 sandbags and systems of gates and aluminum logs are required to close all 20 levee gaps, including two portal openings in Wilkes-Barre and at the Market Street Bridge, he said.
“It’s a very labor intensive affair, and during high water events, resources are scarce,” he said. “In the past, we’ve relied on volunteers, but I think we need to be more proactive.”
He plans to ask the authority board to vote in April on the selection of options for each site and the authorization for Borton-Lawson to design and seek permits for the projects so bidding can proceed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must sign off on all modifications, Belleman said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.