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Troubled bridge over water?

The new Eighth Street Bridge is not a dam. It’s a bridge. On that Thursday afternoon as the river rose I went to West Pittston and saw the water level was already above the Agnes ’72 level. Then I went to the new Eighth Street Bridge and walked the length of the deck. At this point it was closed to vehicles but folks were walking on it.

On the way back to the Wyoming side with my wife, and maybe 100 or so other people, we stopped in the middle, and going back and forth between the up and downriver sides, we watched the river roar under the bridge. It was not hitting the deck.

Yeah, there was plenty of debris in it and some of it hit the piers, but most of it bounced back into the flow and went under and on down river. I watched this happen over and over to what looked like porches, decks, sheds, dog coops, 55 gallon drums, tree trunks and branches, and God knows what all.

The dam effect was zero and, as I said, the water was already up in West Pittston and Jenkins.

Later that day, as it was getting dark, Mike Flynn of the Wyoming Council was escorted to the middle of the bridge. He saw a whirlpool of debris spinning between the old and new bridges, but saw nothing to indicate the bridge was acting like a dam. The water was still roaring under the bridge. The water got as high as the deck only near the entrance on the Jenkins side and long after West Pittston was flooded.

The theory that because the old bridge was open water flowed through it doesn’t hold, well, water.

The flood of 1972 did not reach the deck of the old bridge and neither did the flood of 2011. Also note that the new bridge piers are much narrower than the old bridge piers.

Let’s grant that because half the old bridge is still standing and there is a cofferdam where the second half of the old bridge will fall when it’s demolished, maybe those things, plus whatever effect the new bridge had, backed up some water. But then probably not. I talked to a consulting engineer for PennDOT who said the bridge had no effect and said more water flows under the new bridge than under the old one. Congressman Barletta said he wants a study of the Eighth Street Bridge’s effect on the flooding. How in the world would that work? It’s preposterous.

Let’s consider other factors. The crest was two feet higher this time than in ’72. Wouldn’t that have something to do with the water level in the non-levee areas like West Pittston and Duryea and downstream, too?

And let’s take into account the saturated ground from one of the wettest springs and summers on record and the amount of development in suburban areas since ’72 where hundreds of acres have been landscaped and paved causing less absorption and more runoff.

In 1972 when the levee failed, 10-15 square miles of the Valley that was dry this time was under 5 to 15 feet of water. I’m no hydrologist, but wouldn’t that have something to do with the higher water level in the non-levee areas this time around? That makes tons of sense and almost everybody accepts that. But, is everybody right? Certainly the levees have an effect up and downstream, but is the levee as a cause of flooding in West Pittston and Duryea overstated?

There’s a theory that the levee keeps the river moving downstream fast and that’s good for the upstream areas. Under the theory in ’72 when the levee failed in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston the river went from 1/4 mile wide to three or four miles wide in some areas. As the river widened, its downstream flow slowed considerably. With the river then going much more slowly past West Pittston it spread into low lying areas there, maybe not as much as if the dikes had held, but maybe only a foot or so lower.

Like I said, I’m no hydrologist, but it makes some sense.

There are plenty of prevention theories out there. Here’s one to consider – storm drains. Let’s say there were several huge storm drains with enormous outflow pipes at the lowest points in West Pittston. Granted the water those pipes drained would go back into the river but the exchange might help keep the water level down.

Building more and higher dikes is another remedy, but critics say dikes can be topped or broken down as almost happened in Forty Fort this time around. Some people say dredge the river, remove the islands and dig out spillways or giant catch basins in places like the Wyoming and Exeter flats. But how deep can the river be dredged? There’s bedrock on the river bottom.

Politicians say they want “to make sure this never happens again.” There is no making sure. No one can predict what Mother Nature will do in the future.

It used to be that Agnes was the high standard because it was the highest crest in recorded history. We all went around saying it will never get that high again. We were all wrong. Now we have a new high standard two feet higher than Agnes.

It may not be likely we will again get the perfect storm of weather we had – rain from two tropical storms sandwiched around heavy rain storms from the west all falling on saturated ground.

On the other hand, it could happen again and crest at 50 feet. Who knows?

Jack Smiles is Associate Editor of the Sunday Dispatch. He is the author of three books about regional baseball players in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Hughey Jennings, Big Ed Walsh and Bucky Harris.

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