End of the experiment: South Bethany to sell canal diffusers

It was a pioneering effort, but South Bethany’s canal diffuser experiment was a wash.

After a two-year study, air diffusers placed in the Petherton Drive canal have not significantly increased the dissolved oxygen in the nearly stagnant dead-ends of the canal.

“We did this as an experiment, because we thought it would increase dissolved oxygen,” said George Junkin, town council member and a champion of water quality in the town’s canals. “There was no significantly measureable increase in the canals.”

Using the neighboring Anchorage Drive and Brandywine Drive canals as a control, the Town tested regularly at three different depths in the shallow canals fed by the Little Assawoman Bay.

“We still got about the same results,” Junkin said. “The diffusers were not making the water measurably better.”

With those results, the diffusers were actually turned off by the end of 2014, since the monthly costs exceeded any benefit.

Approved in a last-minute budget amendment in 2012 ($20,000 installation, plus $3,000 for annual maintenance and electricity), the diffusers were installed in April of 2013.

Going in, council knew that diffusers are more efficient in deep water and had only been successfully tested in standing ponds and lakes. There was a chance, they knew, that the diffusers wouldn’t work in long, tidal canals, no matter how stagnant the water.

However, the council was willing to take a chance at that time, based on data that their canal ends behave like stormwater management ponds, due to low circulation.

The science experiment would test that theory.

Diffusers mix things up

Since then, the diffusers appeared only to prevent stratification (the layering of different types of water), which likely caused a fish kill that year in nearby Russell Road canal.

But while the Petherton canal initially showed higher dissolved oxygen (DO) than Anchorage, it still didn’t meet the levels in Brandywine.

Junkin had suggested the diffusers were also mixing the murky bottom water with surface water.

“The bottom water essentially has no DO, and the aerobic bacteria that are on the bottom are being enriched by the oxygen,” read his report from September of 2013. “The aerobic bacteria may be consuming the ‘muck’ on the bottom and possibly eliminating the sources for the spring algal blooms.”

“There’s no use leaving them in the canal if we’re not going to use them,” Junkin said.

The town council voted unanimously on Aug. 14 (with Councilwoman Sue Callaway absent) to sell the diffusers and recoup some dollars.

According to Junkin, Envirotech Environmental Consulting believes it can sell them for $6,500. Envirotech requested a 20 percent seller’s fee and about $1,000 to physically remove the diffusers from the canals. Town council members said they thought it was easier to have professionals do the dirty work, although Junkin had volunteered to work with the Town’s Public Works Department and do the hauling.

The six diffuser plates were situated less than one foot off the canal bed, with a total 4,000 feet of weighted hose, “which might be the most valuable thing in there,” Junkin mused.

Council allots $10,000 for next opportunity

Now that the diffuser project is water under the bridge, Junkin proposed that South Bethany take its next major step to improve water quality.

The Canal Water Quality Committee has requested $10,000 be reserved for future grant opportunities to improve canal water circulation. That would be the Town’s investment if it won additional or matching grants.

According to the data, a decade’s worth of rain gardens and other projects are slowly keeping some harmful nutrients from the canals. But bacteria still flourishes in the unswimmable canals.

“Anchorage is 1,600 feet long. Research shows if you can increase circulation you can improve water quality,” Junkin said.

One such invention was the tidal pump system proposed by resident Lloyd Hughes, which would aim to improve circulation by creating an artificial inlet between the Atlantic Ocean and South Bethany’s canals. Pipes would lead under Coastal Highway, but the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) has withheld permits for an expensive project that would bring a major influx of salt water into the marshland.

“We want to look at maybe opening up the York Canal and the Carlisle Canal to Jefferson Creek,” Junkin said.

But before starting such a project, South Bethany needs “analytical data that shows it would make a difference.”

But a scientific study costs money.

Junkin said that, when a major grant was recently available, he got the vibe that council would not approve the $10,000 match. Thus, he never applied, unwilling to devote the hours to the paperwork.

“I want a commitment today from council [that we’re] willing to put up $10,000 for the next grant opportunity that comes along … so we can get analysis done on the options,” Junkin said.

The study would help determine which specific ideas could help the canals, and the approximate price tag. “The canals are so bad, I don’t see how we can’t try to improve circulation.”

Junkin said he believes future grant money is available for water quality improvement, but South Bethany must invest its own “good-faith money.”

South Bethany already spent about $5,000 to house a Center for Inland Bays oyster experiment in York Canal, noted Councilwoman Carol Stevenson, which she said she felt will not directly help the town. But that investment helped them wrangle a huge grant for the project, Junkin said.

“I’ve been trying to keep costs to the Town on the order of $5,000 to $10,000 per grant,” Junkin said.

The town council can decide which projects to pursue in future.

Treasurer Tim Saxton said that he was unconcerned with the study’s cost, as long as the eventual plans improve “canals and water quality around town and not just … a couple,” he said.

“This is an important discussion, because we have competing priorities around town,” including a $400,000 municipal building expansion, said Saxton.

“We just passed the budget a few months ago,” said Mayor Pat Voveris, adding that she wanted to wait until the next budget cycle. “I think we, as a council … should have a plan of what you want to have. Give us stages, phases.”

Stevenson asked how often grants arise.

Grant opportunities could arise at any time, Junkin said, most typically in August, September or January.

“I want something on the books that this council is committed to doing something toward water quality, and when we get to that opportunity, we come” and ask to spend the money for a matching grant, Junkin said.

Stevenson asked whether those are common requests. Junkin said he has done that before — come to council with a new grant opportunity that required a financial match. “I’ve had no problem getting it.”

Studies can be essential to long-term planning, and, along the proposed studies on ways to improve water quality in its canals, South Bethany officials also recently ordered a study (funded by a Sussex County grant) for the design and cost estimate of a new municipal building expansion. The town council recently voted to further research where to get the money for the project.

“The only way to get a cost is to do the study,” Saxton said. “To me, that’s OK. I want the answer so the council can create a fully-formed decision on what they want to do. I’m not really big on breaking budgets, but it looks to me we have very big plans we’re thinking of” and need to be informed.

Multiple residents spoke up to support the additional $10,000 to at least learn how to improve water quality, including Elizabeth “Betsi” Baker, Joel “Joe” Danshes, Jack Whitney and Ron Wuslich.

Resident Mike Matera suggested the town council forgo the proposed estimated $400,000 town hall additions, instead renting local venues as needed. After living 25 years on a canal, he said, the unswimmable “brown and green” water should be a higher priority.

After the meeting, Voveris said she doesn’t oppose water-quality projects. But she said the committee hasn’t explained the full plan.

“We are not educated and informed, and I believe that we should be. Decisions are made by council, not by committees,” Voveris said.

In March, Junkin had offered to cut $5,000 from the Canal Water Quality budget. Because there were no grant opportunities on the horizon, the money was sacrificed to help balance the budget.

“We had an unexpected expense come in for employee health benefits, and George chose to give it up,” Voveris said after the meeting. “That was part of my problem with this. If he felt this was so important, why would you give this up when something could be on the horizon?”

The motion passed, 4-2, with Voveris and Stevenson against the motion and Callaway absent.

In other South Bethany news:

• The Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company is considering hiring firefighters to supplement their volunteer staff, Voveris reported. The proposal was raised at a recent BBVFC ambulance service advisory group meeting in July that included Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island, Middlesex and South Bethany. The idea is a result of dwindling volunteerism locally and on a national scale. The suggestion was expected to be brought to the public soon, with proposed implementation in July of 2016.

• South Bethany received $5,000 in refunds from DeLea Founders Insurance Trust, a workman’s compensation group, which formed in 2008 to try to buffer local governments against premium increases. Such a refund would typically have been kept by a for-profit insurance company.

• Around 58 percent of the Town’s total revenue for the fiscal year has already been collected, with high likelihood of a “consistent and healthy” revenue stream, reported Council Treasurer Saxton.

• After talking to Artesian Water representatives, Voveris said she had learned that the company handles about 1,216 accounts from South Bethany’s 1,404 parcels. Some residents were concerned that others don’t pay their fair share of the company’s fire hydrant fee, despite benefitting from it in an emergency.

“Nearly 90 percent of homes here are serviced by Artesian,” said Voveris.

“‘This is a concern we hear periodically. However, we do not have the ability to charge property owners who are not our customers,’” Voveris was told by Artesian. There are no plans to change that.

• One resident said a wetlands assessment by a DNREC environmental scientist was “well-meaning, but inadequate.”

Resident Joan Marini said she was pleasantly surprised that Voveris asked DNREC to examine the town’s wetlands. But she said his walking tour didn’t truly show the angles where marsh grasses are receding, leaving larger ponds of open water and weakened buffer zones.

Voveris reported that he had found the marsh “healthy and functioning as a low-marsh wetland,” but she would follow up on additional wetlands assessment.

• After learning about the police department’s participation in a government overstock program, the Budget & Finance Committee has suggested that the Town establish parameters on how to use the program; create a Town-wide list of desired items; determine the rationale, cost insurance and maintenance of the acquisitions; and establish a budget line item for overstock acquisitions.

• Officials reminded property owners that tree branches overhanging the canal must be above a certain height, or risk being a code violation.

• Maintenance Supervisor Don Chrobot got a shout-out for his 10 years of service to the Town.

• A hearing board composed of council members Wayne Schrader, Frank?Weisgerber and George Junkin was appointed to hear the appeal of a floating dock violation.

• A new chairperson and members were appointed to the Communications & Public Relations Committee: Chairperson Carol Stevenson and members Ann Boteler, Margaret Oliver, Lisa Saxton and Linda Whitney. Stevenson said the committee will consider asking for an additional $500 contingency, in case opportunities arise.

The next Town Council workshop is Thursday, Aug. 27, at 2 p.m.