South Bethany plans next step for clean canal water

With five miles of canals, South Bethany has called itself the “Venice of Delaware.” But all canals don’t lead to Rome in this case, as the dead-end canals suffer from poor flushing and circulation.

That’s the challenge being addressed by the Canal Water Quality Committee, led by Town Councilman George Junkin.

Poor flushing haunts the South Bethany canal ends farthest from larger bodies of water. Waste and nutrients move at snail’s pace out of some canal ends, if they ever escape. Among the inland bays, the best water conditions are nearest to the inlets, Junkin said, since a stronger tide drags Delaware’s dirty water out to sea.

That’s not to say the inland bays are perfect, but “We don’t get the algal blooms in the Indian River Bay like we do in our canals,” Junkin said.

About 800 homes are located on the canals, estimated committee member Jack Whitney.

According to a Town study, the shorter, westernmost canals need a month to reduce contaminants by just 36.79 percent.

But the maze of easterly canal ends were in the red, barely meeting that goal after four months.

One big idea

The Canal Water Quality Committee was formed in 2007 to help make the town’s waters “swimmable and fishable” again. But how do canals prove to meet either of these broad requirements?

Swimmable water is determined by bacteria levels. Fishable waters are measured in dissolved oxygen, temperature, turbidity, salinity and nutrient levels.

South Bethany tests all of these weekly in the summer.

The canals would get better flushing if circulation increased, Junkin has said for years. Around 2007, the Canal Water Quality Committee researched a tidal pump, which could mimic the small, natural inlets that used to cross Coastal Highway (Route 1). They connected the Atlantic Ocean and Little Assawoman Bay. Other U.S. communities connect canals with pipes or pumps, Junkin said.

The committee pitched the idea to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC), but the State “[wasn’t] going to take a chance on saying that they like it, because it would change the environment,” Junkin said. “The canals would be more salty, and there would be pollutants in the ocean.”

“The [tidal pump] proposal was not accepted by DNREC, in part, because the beneficial effects would be limited to the Town and would not appreciably affect the inland bays,” according to the Town’s Comprehensive Plan Five-Year Review in 2012.

The EPA wasn’t interested, either, and there wasn’t $7 million in funding for the project anyway.

But even with the funding, South Bethany would need permission, permits and proof that it would work. To understand how a tidal pump (or any other resource) would affect town, the committee hopes to find grant money for research. That’s why Junkin (successfully) requested $10,000 from the South Bethany budget be made available as a match for any future grants.

Several little ideas

Until South Bethany knowns that a massive project will revive water quality in the canals, Junkin and the canal committee have dedicated hundreds of man-hours to felling the giant, one stone at a time.

Junkin emphasized the need for a future circulation study. The town council approved a $10,000 addition to the budget, in case the Town must contribute matching funds to a grant.

One goal is to reduce nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, which plants love. But that same fertilizer can cause algal blooms. Rain gardens (bio-retention areas) in the town have made a dent in the problem, allowing plants to drink up nutrient-rich water before it hits storm drains, which spit that water straight into the canals.

South Bethany could also work to reduce “gray water,” the runoff from impervious surfaces, such as roofs and driveways, which carries with it pollutants; educate homeowners on reducing fertilizer inputs; and examine dead-end canals to determine if any could benefit from low-cost solutions to increase flushing.

For years, South Bethany has prioritized rain gardens and bio-retention ponds — a relatively inexpensive way to let plants naturally soak up nutrients before stormwater reaches the canals.

Otherwise, the Canal Water Quality Committee is open to suggestions.

By dredging the canals, the Town could suck up the nutrient-heavy mud and potentially increase water flow, Junkin suggested.

“Dredging was done in the 2009/2010 time period, at a cost to the Town of over $300,000,” stated the 2012 Comprehensive Plan Review. The goal was to remove silt and increase water circulation just in canals at less than 3 feet in depth. (The large amounts of sand unearthed led Town Manager Melvin Cusick to believe that was the canals’ first dredging since the Storm of ’62.) The State funded dredging of the neighboring Assawoman Canal.

But dollar-for-dollar, would South Bethany benefit more by treating nutrients before they hit the canals, rather than ship that dirty water into the Atlantic, asked Town Councilman Wayne Schrader. “We’re giving our junk to the ocean,” Schrader said.

“The ocean has room for a lot of junk,” Councilwoman Carol Stevenson responded.

“We’re just trying to get [the canals] more averaged out,” Junkin said.