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Beyond Mack Electric: the Vagaries of Area Flood Project Planning

Posted On Jul 13 2013
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The roiling waters in Keswick Village during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 heading down to Cheltenham's Brookdale area (photo credit: Moira Rooney)

Mack Electric, a Wyncote firm profiled this week for its history of flooding and disruptions endured over the years, has not been alone in facing those grim realities. Nor, of course, are Cheltenham residents. Since 1967, at least a dozen major floods have occurred in Abington Township, many of them triggering federal disaster declarations.

Experts say it is a problem that has to be attacked regionally on the basis of a range of factors within a given watershed or drainage basin. Indeed, that sentiment parallels that of the PA DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), the state agency often in the thick of local storm water controversies, for Cheltenham. In unofficial preparatory notes for a 2001 public meeting in the township after Tropical Storm Allison (secured by the Cheltenham Chamber of Citizens (CCC) in a document request and made available to Citizens’ Call), the agency said, “The region has grown so much since the (Glenside) flood protection project was designed that the flooding problems are not just on one street or in one neighborhood. We need county and township officials to work with us on finding a solution for the entire watershed.”

The problem here and up and down the watershed is nothing new, nor are its fundamental causes mysterious. As far back as 1967, Cheltenham Township bought out and leveled 26 houses along Rock Creek subject to flooding to create Rock Creek Park. Environmentalists have long argued that development in eastern Montgomery County has decimated wetlands to the point that flood protection measures without tough land use controls are no match for heavy storms in high risk areas.

If flooding is a regional concern, its impacts can be not only devastating but, oddly, hyper-localized. Major property damage and safety issues can befall one household while the one across the street is untouched. When a township takes on a problem for one or more of its neighborhoods, it will reengineer the water flow, but not necessarily in a way that takes into account the impact downstream, especially if natural detention methods are not emphasized, say watershed protection advocates. And Cheltenham is about as downstream as you can get. So while the problem crosses municipal boundaries, too often the solutions don’t. Engineer/community environmentalist Tom McHugh refers sardonically to the phenomenon as “flood relocation projects,” since he sees a tendency to “move” rather than actually mitigate flooding by protecting some residents or removing inconvenient ponding build-ups upstream at the expense of people downstream. Part of the dilemma is a function of funding. Flood protection projects are capital projects and capital projects are funded through individual municipal capital budgets, unless they come with state and/or federal funding. Even then, projects are based on municipal agreements with higher level government agencies in a context lacking institutional muscle to foster broader project planning.

The political fall-out is also highly localized. The impetus for Abington’s Baeder Run flood control project in the early 2000s, for example, was the loss of two lives in the flooding from Hurricane Fran in 1996. As some measure of the flooding problem confronted in Cheltenham, residents on 15 streets across the township made claims under the federal flood insurance program in 2011, according to the township EAC (Environmental Advisory Council). Some 300 households now live in Cheltenham’s federally designated flood zones. And when high flood waters strike, residents line up to tell township officials of the havoc they and their families experienced, some having no idea they were even in a flood zone when they moved in.

Today there are hopeful signs in terms of flood protection measures taking shape in the township. Residents’ pleas for action over the years appear to have struck a chord, as evidenced not only by the redesign of the plan for the Glenside Flood Control Project but movement on the Tookany watershed study by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE). The ACOE study has reached the stage of identification and analysis of a range of project options. According to the township, they include structural measures like raising or building levees and floodwalls, bridge modifications, bio-swales (a form of bioretention) and bioretention basins as well as non-structural solutions such as property buy-outs and floodplain land-use controls. The next public meeting of the ACOE project is set for July 31 at Glenside Hall.

Significantly, the ACOE project study could be the impetus for regional planning and development of flood protection projects by neighboring municipalities (Abington, Jenkintown, Springfield, Rockledge and Philadelphia are all at least partly in the Tookany watershed) in conjunction with Cheltenham, assuming the drip of federal dollars doesn’t run dry. But don’t count on bold regional steps just yet. At the project meeting last February where specific flood mitigation options were first put on the table, there were no officials present from municipalities other than Cheltenham, nor were any even invited.

Unfortunately, examples of perceived gaps in flood protection planning are not hard to come by. “Perceived” because there appear to be no studies – at least not that have seen the light of day – that address the issues raised, consistent with the fact that post-capital project analyses are rare in the public sector, making it difficult to pin down unfavorable impacts of projects that may have been once touted as great solutions. Throw in the controversies surrounding weather changes and even sophisticated computer models used by planners to project future effects lack credibility, according to some advocates, based on historical data that may no longer apply. What do you say to a computer model using more than a century of historical data when you witness personally two “100-year storms” occur within the span of three years? Is there a “new normal” that overrides old data? Cheltenham EAC (Environmental Advisory Council) Chair David McVeigh-Schultz believes that computer models with one hundred years of data “dilute evidence over the last 20 years of how average climate is changing.” Whether consensus science hasn’t caught up to the problem, or practices are just lagging behind, meaningful planning takes the hit.

As if Mack Electric could afford even an inch of additional flooding while it occupied its North Avenue site, three storm water projects in Abington in the last 16 years will be cited as suspects for adding significantly to the firm’s water woes. Of the three, one was sponsored by Penn DoT (PA Department of Transportation), one by the township and one by Montgomery County. First is the 1997 Walnut Street Bridge Drainage Project, linked to the reconstruction of the Walnut Street Bridge connecting Jenkintown with Abington. In that case, a request to determine if flooding would worsen downstream as a result of a second culvert installed under the bridge was rejected by Penn DoT. In a March, 1994 letter, then Rep. Larry Curry (D-154) requested an environmental impact statement, calling it “desperately needed.” He cited consultant studies by Gannett Fleming and Betz, Converse and Murdoch pointing to more flooding downstream from the loss of ponding/water detention areas and greater channeling of Baeder Run. Curry’s concerns at the time included the SEPTA installations in the water’s path but when asked recently if he thought Mack Electric and others were affected, he said the bridge drainage project is likely to have had an impact on water levels at Mack Electric.

In the mid-1990s with memories of Hurricane Fran still fresh, Abington Township started moving to implement flood control measures at Baeder Run. The creek, which starts near Abington High School, runs south to Walnut Street in Jenkintown and reaches Cheltenham, eventually connecting with Tookany Creek, has been subject to flooding over the years, especially affecting homes along Baeder and Wanamaker Roads. After Allison the township, in conjunction with FEMA, widened the creek by about seven feet, enlarged a culvert and installed a concrete wall along the Wanamaker Road side of the creek. In addition, in a $4 million project covered largely by FEMA, Abington later bought out some 20 homes, mostly on Wanamaker and converted the land to open space restricted from future development. The Abington EAC has planted 18 trees there since.

In a 1998 Inquirer story on design options being considered, then Cheltenham Township Engineer David Lynch was quoted in a plea for coordination with Cheltenham on the project. Was there coordination and if so, what was the result? The questions were posed to Township Manager Bryan Havir, who was Assistant Township Manager at the time, by email. He was also asked about his general view of the opportunities for coordinating with other municipalities on flood planning. However, Havir chose not to respond, citing a time crunch. McHugh, however, calls the Baeder Run project “misguided” from the standpoint of further channelization of the creek and the resulting acceleration of stormwater.

Probably the most prominent and controversial of the projects sourced outside of Cheltenham thought to have worsened storm water problems here is the installation of a 42 inch storm water reinforced concrete pipe for moving water from the Easton Road railroad underpass to the intersection of Glenside and Keswick Avenues. It was done shortly before Allison hit in 2001 with the primary objective to relieve flooding obstructing traffic on Easton Road. According to a memo from Township Manager David Kraynik at the time (secured by the CCC), the extensive impact of Allison on Cheltenham made it in every way a watershed event. Kraynik said, “the amount and frequency of this large volume of rain is going to render most storm water and sanitary sewer prevention measures useless. There was flooding and other related damage to areas we have never seen before.” Consequences included: severe flooding of homes on Brookdale, Harrison and Glenside Avenues in Glenside and Park, Spring and Elkins Avenues and Mill Road in Elkins Park with storm sewer discharges in usual trouble spots; a wall washed away at Mack Electric; a SEPTA rail line embankment washed away, leaving track suspended in the air for several hundred yards; five feet of water at the Public Service Facility lot at York and Church Roads and significant road damage.

In a thread of July, 2001 email discussions of responses to dead-on questions from a Brookdale Avenue resident (provided to Citizens’ Call by the CCC), DEP revealed that about 63-acre feet of water collected around Glenside and Keswick Avenues during a two-hour period during Allison. The agency said that about half of it was run-off from Abington. From residents’ observations, including his own, McHugh, a Wyncote resident, claims that where once the flooding was so great on Easton Road that teenagers jumped into the water off of the railroad bridge, with the installation of the 42 inch pipe, the area under the bridge drained efficiently during Allison. Yet the unprecedented ponding that developed from combined surface flow and underground culverts down Keswick Ave. through the spillway near Brookdale into the Tookany Creek overflow more than suggests, according to McHugh, that the county’s new pipe played a major role.

In trying to convey the magnitude of the water flow down to Brookdale, McHugh says that the 42 inch pipe has a peak capacity of 389 gallons per second which can fill a typical residential in-ground swimming pool in 24 seconds. “If the Keswick culvert is so full with water flow down from Keswick Village, the additional water from the Easton Road railroad underpass just surcharges the system at the Glenside and Keswick intersection and adds to the overland flash flood running down the surface of Keswick Avenue. It then has no place to go except into the Brookdale neighborhood.”

Beyond the actual impact of the pipe, which is disputed by DEP (see below), it turned out that the county failed to gain the approvals and conduct the necessary studies required by the state. In fact, when DEP found out that the county was out of compliance, it insisted on an analysis to determine if the pipe would undermine flood protection and when the initial result came back that it did, the pipe was turned off. Temporarily. The decision was later reversed. What changed?

DEP engineer Mark Malach, then part of the team involved in dealing with Glenside flooding and now the project manager, is hazy about how the issue first came to the agency’s attention but told Citizens’ Call it’s possible he “stumbled across it while I was there investigating the area of the (Glenside) flood project.” He continued, “If somebody normally thinks that the Easton Road underpass used to flood then and somebody probably thought . . . that if it didn’t hold water there it would flood downstream.” When it was discovered there was no permit for the project, the county had to go back and show this wasn’t the case. Malach said DEP required a hydraulic analysis documenting no negative impacts. The process, including working with the county’s consultant, took more than a year. “In the end they proved there was no adverse impact downstream and the regional office issued the permit and the pipe was opened.”

Although he had not looked at the analysis in years, Malach said he believed that several different scenarios were examined with various intensities of rainfall – not “just your average rainfall.” That type of analysis would assume, he said, the same amount of rainfall at the Easton Road underpass as on Keswick Avenue in Abington. “You look at timing of the runoff – how fast that water gets down – and try to time it and see which one gets there first.” In the end, he said, the analysis showed that the Easton Road underpass drained prior to the Keswick Avenue runoff getting to the area around Brookdale Avenue. Malach said he was confident that the pipe had no impact on flooding downstream.

Asked if the analysis could change under an intense storm scenario such as Allison in 2001 or Lee in 2011 when rain came down at nearly two inches per hour for two consecutive hours, Malach responded by email: “I did not go back and review the files, but I do believe the scenario you describe was studied. I also believe that if the pipe connection caused any increased flooding downstream, DEP would not have given permission nor issued the county a permit to make the pipe connection.”

John Clifford, Chief Operating Officer of Mack Electric, the firm then at North Avenue whose front door and entire wall was blown out during Allison, takes a different view. “As an enginneer, you have to look at the trend here. . . obviously it (the pipe) caused some problems.” He sees the dramatic increase in flood levels experienced at North Ave. since 2001 and is convinced that the pipe is a prominent factor. “With the study that they’ve done now (the new design for the Glenside Flood Control Project), the proof is that it’s just telling us that what they did has caused the problem. The historic (actual) data is better than the projective (study) data.” The new Glenside flood plan has Mack’s North Ave. property being acquired for conversion to a storm water detention pond.

The final example, not involving Mack Electric, requires a fast-forward to the present for a relatively small project taken on by Jenkintown Borough. The Cedar to Walnut Storm Sewer Project is another local solution to a high water problem that may have harmful effects downstream. A 36- inch storm water pipe has been placed underground between houses to resolve a ponding problem on Cedar Street by collecting the water and sending it over to Walnut Street and then down to Tookany Creek near the bridge at Washington Lane in Cheltenham. McHugh calls the $800,000 project “another classic case of spending tax dollars to do exactly what all planners and environmentalists keep saying is so bad – accelerating storm water runoff.” In other words, it’s pretty basic. Here’s what the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership says on their website:

A watershed is all of the land that drains rainwater into a particular body of water. The rainwater often carries chemicals, trash, and other materials over the land and into storm drains, depositing them directly into our creeks, streams, and rivers. This has an adverse impact on everything from plants and wildlife to our sources of drinking water.

The lack of potent regional planning mandates and sensible collaboration among municipalities and other public entities makes dealing with tough technical issues of cost-effective flood protection all the more challenging. PA’s Storm Water Management Act (Act 167), while providing a planning framework for counties and municipalities that supports the principle that flood projects should not worsen conditions downstream, lacks an enforcement mechanism and incentives for regionwide action. At a statewide hearing on infrastructure last month at Curtis Hall, McHugh contended that local storm water codes don’t do the job. He said they tend to address the effects of new construction by requiring undergound storage systems, as is the case in Cheltenham. But when storms like Allison, Irene and Lee reign (guys just haven’t had as big an impact in these parts), he said the systems may hold only the first one to two inches (Cheltenham’s ordinance mandates a capacity of only one inch) before overflowing and losing their water detention effect, thus providing “a false sense of security” for those at risk.

Asked for his view on the impact of the projects cited in this story and whether there was coordination between the townships, Ward One (Glenside) Commissioner Drew Sharkey said this:

“The Township is aware of these projects and we thank the residents for sharing information with the Township. Members of township staff did meet with Abington to discuss these projects. Whether they are harmful or not is not the key issue. They problem is we have little to no control over the actions of our neighboring municipalities. What is needed is for the Commonwealth to pass legislation requiring DEP approval for storm water projects or for the state to set up watershed storm water authorities. We need the State to take action.”

Then there is the question of effective storm water management related to development within the township’s borders. The issue of the site design of Wyncote Elementary with its enlarged storm water footprint from impervious surfaces for a bus oval and more parking reflects this tension. Neighbors and flood protection advocates argued before the board of commissioners and at zoning hearings that even if the storm water storage system met code – and school district planners maintain that it even surpasses requirements – the project will still exacerbate storm runoff downstream. While costs and a tight construction time frame are clear concerns for the school district, the image of a public project – in this case a school – paid for with public dollars that potentially compounds rather than mitigates a longstanding community problem, did not sit well with a contingent of residents.

Concern over storm water issues related to new development projects is a common one and generally gets broached during zoning hearings, when the broad parameters of a project are up for debate. But the response from zoning officials is often that such concerns are misplaced and should be brought up later during the land use planning stage. An improvement, at least to the process of airing the impact of new developments on runoff issues, could come later this year through the work of the township’s The Ad-Hoc Zoning Committee. The committee, mandated by the township’s Comprehensive Plan and including members of the township’s Economic Development Task Force and Planning Commission. has been working with township staff and county planners on updates to the zoning code, with a goal of having proposed revisions to the commissioners by the end of the year.

According to a well placed source, one option under consideration is to require a broad brush storm water management plan from property owners/developers for properties of five acres or more for both new development and major additions. The plans would be submitted with zoning applications. This would allow the township and the public a chance to review storm water plans as part of the zoning approval process for larger properties.

Finally, there is at least one old question that still endures when it comes to flooding in the township: Why was the Glenside Flood Control Project stalled for almost 20 years? Yes, there were problems with one or more easemements for properties in Abington, but 20 years? More precisely, the original appropriation of $3 million pushed by Rep. Curry was passed through the legislature in 1994, and there was at first great hope for relief. And when stagnation set in, why was energy not refocused toward a redesign, the way it was – finally – after Hurricane Irene and Storm Lee in 2011? Curry, recently retired, did his part and wouldn’t have minded taking some credit for the reality of the project rather than its pale ghost. He doesn’t have all the answers, but did have some thoughts on the matter when he recently talked to Citizens’ Call.

“They (the township) were never sure of what the costs were going to be and always afraid that the state in the middle of it might walk away,” a view Curry said seemed to reflect the posture of then Township Manager David Kraynik. Maybe the residents of Brookdale Avenue and others at risk just weren’t loud and forceful enough. Whatever it was, it was a priority that sadly withered. Or maybe Sharkey, who didn’t join the board of commissioners until 2008, has the best answer: “Regarding the Glenside Flood Control Project, the key word in the phrase ‘past 20 years’ is the word ‘past.’ What matters in 2013 is that we have a plan that will bring relief to the residents of Brookdale. The focus needs to shift to implementing the plan.” Could be, but somehow the question of public trust still takes a back seat.

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