Valley business, organizations brace for dam repairs, shortened boating season

·14 min read

May 8—SUNBURY — The campsites at Sunbury Airport Campground are already full, RVs in place, and the temporary residents are prepared for summer.

But many of those campers who look forward to the boating season on the Susquehanna River's Lake Augusta will not have that option until much later in the summer. They, like many other businesses and stakeholders in the Susquehanna Valley, will have mostly a dry season thanks to a $1,072,560 project to repair the Adam T. Bower Memorial Dam.

"We live here six months out of the year," said Christopher Croll, of White Deer Township. "It's going to affect everyone, especially everyone in the area who boats. It definitely affects us. We'll be making trips to other places to boat because of that."

Croll and his wife have four boats and two jet skis. They would normally look forward to hanging out with friends and cooking on the river.

Repairs to the 2,000-foot-long Adam T. Bower Memorial Dam caused boating season to be delayed this year until at least mid-to-late August. Normally, the bags would be inflated in May, creating the 3,000-acre Lake Augusta in the Susquehanna River in time to start boating season by Memorial Day weekend.

The season ends in late September and the dam is lowered in early October.

This year's repairs caused the fourth shortened boating season since 2017.

James Gilfert has owned the Sunbury Airport Campground on Packer Island for 22 years. It's on the same island as the Shikellamy State Park Marina and docks.

"The river is a natural resource that a lot of people appreciate for many different reasons. Some people like to fish in it, some people like to boat on it, some people swim in it, some people kayak in it, some people stand and look at it," said Gilfert. "Most of my people in the campground are here in some way related to the river."

Most people who rent one of the 320 sites are boaters or kayakers, he said.

"There's a lot of rumblings, a lot of people complaining, a lot of people asking questions when they announced it," said Gilfert. "There's a lot of people displeased by it. They're still showing up here and figuring they will make the most of the summer and hope they get something out of the river at some point this year."

Gilfert said the sites are reserved at least a year in advance. He said it's common for at least two or three people to back out in the spring but this year he had more than a dozen.

"It's significantly more than normal," said Gilfert. "It could be for other reasons. I can't say I had anybody that specifically said they're backing out because they can't boat this year. A lot of the time I don't ask why they backed out. They just inform me that they are."

Gilfert said the boating season being shortened is "always a concern."

"I'm sure the people who have campsites will spend less time here when the river is not boatable," said Gilfert. "If it's a nice day and the river is up, they're here. Now if it's a nice day and the river is not up, they may choose to do something else."

It is a "major disappointment," he said.

"I wouldn't say it's the end of the world when it happens, but it is a big deal," said Gilfert. "It affects their lives and their lifestyles and how they spend time with their families because they're on the river."

Bag six repairs

Shikellamy State Park Manager Andrew Leidich and Jared Fencil, assistant regional manager for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' (DCNR) Bureau of State Parks, explained that bag six, the second one in from the Shamokin Dam side, suffered damage in 2019 from multiple high-water events. A thorough inspection revealed premature wear and tear. Leidich and Fencil said they are confident the bag was faulty from a manufacturer never used before. The underside of the bag looked to have been rubbed and slashed against the underlying concrete, creating four gashes, they said.

A routine bag replacement was set for fall 2021. The previous bag in the bay was last installed in 2012 and was the reason for the shortened 2019 season. Premature wear and susceptibility to punctures were discovered. This led to the 2021 shortened season. DCNR was able to procure a new bag for bay six manufactured by HTE Engineering, a company that has produced reliable bags for the park before, and was ready to replace the damaged bag, said Leidich.

"The Susquehanna River was unseasonably high for the entirety of last fall which made completing the project impossible," said Leidich. "The USGS river gauge data shows just how high the river was. Additionally, there were three high water events that continually challenged the cofferdam and causeway structures."

In order to do bag replacements, crews need the river to be 8.5 feet or less. Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, there were only three or four days in the entire autumn where the river was low enough, they said. At least seven straight days are needed to replace a bag.

Additionally, the temperatures dropped too far below 55 degrees to complete the job in November. The adhesive used in the installation won't work in lower temperatures, Leidich and Fencil said.

Bag seven will be patched this year as well after it was punctured during a fall storm last year. Additional routine bag replacement has been pushed off until at least 2027, they said.

Wes Robinson, DCNR spokesman, said the park sees about $40,000 in revenue generated from boater fees and anticipates $32,000 in revenue from the shortened season.

"It is important to note that without the dam, there wouldn't be a lake for people to boat on at all, and the unfortunate issue is affecting our operations as a result of the surrounding area," Robinson said. "It is also important to note that while this is an unfortunate mishap because of some unforeseen circumstances with conditions on the river, we do have a $1.4 billion infrastructure need across state parks and forests to cover projects of this nature and for other planned and emergency repairs."

State officials were at Shikellamy in October to address infrastructure concerns. Those issues total $56 million and include a deteriorating marina building, parking lot disrepair, riverbank erosion, impacts from flooding, and other green infrastructure needs, he said.

"This is relevant because we prioritize projects like the fabridam that help keep a strong boating season but are also trying to prioritize other important infrastructure projects and the public should be aware of that," Robinson said.

Drop in sales

Ken Maurer, owner of Southside Sports Bait and Tackle in Sunbury for the last 31 years, said he will see a drop in sales over the summer weekends. Anyone owning boats with propellers won't be able to run in the shallow waters, he said.

"We'll not have near the number of boaters coming in," he said. "Saturday and Sunday especially there's a lot of boat traffic. It's the only place for quite a ways around that you can run a propeller boat. We'll miss the weekend warriors."

Every weekend in a normal boating season has hundreds of people on the water, he said.

"Overall, it won't kill our business, but we'll see less business on the weekends," said Maurer. "We often get boats in here headed to campgrounds, picking up supplies. That won't happen now."

Sunbury resident Chris Vayda, a camper at Sunbury Airport Campground and member of the Sunbury Social Club, located on Packer Island, said he enjoys sitting along the river to watch. He calls the campsite home in the summer.

"It's definitely going to affect the campers because they're not going to be able to be in the water," said Vayda. "That's the main reason a lot of them have waterfront properties here."

The social club isn't able to put its docks in either or host annual events, he said.

Jay Seidel Jr., owner of Front Street Station in Northumberland, expects to see a drop in sales, but not a significant one.

"June is probably our peak season because our patio is pretty popular (with the boating crowd)," said Seidel. "They love our patio. You can tell that they just came off the river. Some of them are still in their swim trunks and bikinis and flips flops. They pull up with their boats."

Sunday is the biggest day. Boaters walk up from the river. Some get takeout and walk back to the shore, he said.

"The patio seats about 100," he said. "It's shaded with trees. We have entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. It's a nice place to come after a good day of boating. It's a shame about the boating season."

Dealerships are 'frustrated'

Mike Keller, owner of Keller Marine and RV in Port Trevorton, said the shortened boating season affects his business indirectly. Keller is a wholesaler for dealerships.

"Most dealerships are frustrated," said Keller. "They know consumers won't be boating this year. They feel like most won't even get their boats out of storage. That will affect their customer base."

Keller's father started the company in 1958 and Keller has been working full-time there since 1986. He said he braces himself every year.

"There's a lot of frustration by citizens," said Keller. "It feels like every year something comes up and it shortens the season. It feels like every year there's something else."

Keller said he recognizes that nature works against them, but he wonders whether there's a cohesive plan or a long-term solution.

"Are we being as efficient as possible? Are we putting Band-Aids on or are we fixing things for the long term?" said Keller.

Rowing association

The Central Pennsylvania Rowing Association in 2016 relocated its headquarters and boathouse from near the junction of Routes 11 & 15 and the former Tedd's Landing to the island portion of the Shikellamy State Park near the courtesy dock. The group has about 25 members who will temporarily use the docks and area they were previously using prior to 2016, said Association President Richard Orwig.

"We have worked out an arrangement with Bucknell and Susquehanna universities to row off their docks and with property owner Denise Skotedis," said Orwig. "The water is more predictable there. When the dam is up, we have high water at the island, and we can put our docks in and not worry about it. When the dam is down, it's too low even for our small boats. There are too many rocks. It has to be really, really low for this (the temporary site) to not work."

Orwig said they don't have control over Mother Nature.

"It's an inflatable dam, and inflatable things get damaged," he said. "There really isn't much that can be done."

Other options

Andrew Miller, the executive director of the Susquehanna River Valley Visitor's Bureau, said other options for boating enthusiasts are available in the Valley.

"Although the fabridam's repair will impact boating recreation and fishing tournaments on Lake Augusta for the summer tourism season, here at the Visitors Bureau, we're prepared to recommend nearby streams and additional river locations for canoeing and kayaking, plus boating options at Faylor and Walker Lakes in Snyder County and Montour Preserve's Lake Chillisquaque, as well as reservoirs at Weiser State Forest which allow non-motorized and electric boats," said Miller.

The Bureau's updated Fishing Guide, produced with the assistance of local fishing resources, identifies "the best locations in the Susquehanna River Valley for fishing in creeks, lakes and the river," he said.

"Though Lake Augusta may not be available for the season, we hope we can encourage water recreation enthusiasts to explore other options in the Susquehanna River Valley for their enjoyment," said Miller.

Bob Garrett, the CEO/President of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the ripple effect of a shortened boating season will be felt around the Susquehanna Valley.

"It is understood that a hospitality-related dollar spent in the Susquehanna Valley is returned seven times over," said Garrett. "If the boating season is 120 days, and you take away 20 or 30 of those days, it means a lot to the Valley. The river is what brings people here. We don't have Disney World, we don't have destinations like that. We market a quality of life, a slower pace, an enjoyable family-orientated area. Not having the dam is a big impact."

It affects everything from gasoline sales for boats and vehicles, marine sales, restaurants and lodging.

"It seems like repairs have become an annual event," Garrett said.

Mike Parker, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission spokesman, said Lake Augusta provides valuable recreational boating opportunities for some larger boats and watersport enthusiasts that will be missed while the project is underway. The Fish and Boat Commission has no involvement in the maintenance of the dam.

"Because there is so much activity on that section of river around Shikellamy State Park during the summer, it is certainly a focus of safety messaging and patrols for our local waterways conservation officers," said Parker. "While the number of powered boats will be fewer while the water level is lower, there are still many smaller boats and paddlers on canoes and kayaks who will be enjoying that section of the river, so we will continue law enforcement patrols."

There have been previous years when the dam was down and there was less activity, so commission officers were able to better patrol other waters around the region, he said.

"I don't have any specific data on the economic impact of boating to the Northumberland/Union/Snyder region, but it certainly contributes millions of dollars to tourism through lodging, campground activity, and restaurant visits," said Miller. "Boaters who wish to operate larger boats will have to find alternate locations, which may not be as convenient to get to and require a longer drive."

'Normal operating summer'

Leidich said as soon as river levels are low enough to get back in the river and complete the project, they'll be there.

"This involves rebuilding the causeway, installing the temporary cofferdam, inspecting the concrete and anchor bolt infrastructure, and finally installing the new bag and testing it. Once the new bag is fully installed, the causeway and cofferdam will be removed. DCNR will operate the dam to create Lake Augusta for the remainder of the 2022 season," said Leidich.

As of Wednesday, the contractor had already installed the causeway along the T-wall up to the start of the dam. This is in preparation to continue the rest of the work as soon as conditions allow, he said.

Routine spring inspection of the dam began this past week. That included temporary bag inflation, said Leidich.

Based on historical data of the river, the installation of the bag is likely to occur in late June or early July. The work inspection will take about five weeks, meaning mid-to-late August is the best estimate for completion of the project and boating season to start, said Leidich.

Contractor Glen Hawbaker will move as fast as possible. They are aware of how flexible they need to be, said Fencil.

Leidich and Fencil said the project is of the utmost importance to the park and state.

"We will get in there as soon as we can in order to safely and realistically get the work done," said Leidich. "We're tired of the pressure of this high-profile repair. We want things to be turned back to normal as soon as possible. We want to bring it back to a normal operating summer. We want a normal operating summer to finally occur."

Fencil said the park staff is as disappointed about the dam as residents and business owners are in the Valley. Staff put in "a lot of extra hours" with a "lot of urgency" in the fall, said Leidich.

"Our staff takes pride in this dam, they take pride in the work they do," said Fencil. "They were really disappointed last year. They worked very hard in a very short window.

"It's extremely important to us. We know how important it is to the community. We'll work as fast as Mother Nature will allow us, and work simultaneously with our contractor."