Honesdale eyeing stormwater improvements

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 9/28/21

HONESDALE, PA — Honesdale’s geography leaves the borough susceptible to flooding each year. Its aging infrastructure makes stormwater management nearly impossible, and climate science …

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Honesdale eyeing stormwater improvements

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HONESDALE, PA — Honesdale’s geography leaves the borough susceptible to flooding each year. Its aging infrastructure makes stormwater management nearly impossible, and climate science suggests that these problems will only grow in intensity and frequency in the coming years. Officials local and statewide still feel that they can turn around this bleak outlook with some major improvement projects, but those won’t come quickly or cheaply.

Last month’s Hurricane Ida was only the latest severe rain event to cause flooding for the borough and surrounding municipalities. Director of the Wayne Conservation District Jamie Knecht said that in her 17 years of experience, her department has consistently seen rainstorms damage properties and wash out streets. As an area develops, Knecht said, new construction and roadway projects have unintended irrigational impacts.

“Years and years ago, people built towns around water because they needed the water and that made sense at the time,” she said. “It’s not that it doesn’t make sense now, but… every single home, road, business, everything that we place is going to have an effect on how water flows.”

Knecht hears from homeowners throughout the entire county when properties get flooded, but she said that the highest percentage of those calls come from Honesdale. She’s currently assisting borough officials as they search for a “holistic” solution to a “multi-pronged” problem.

Borough councilor Jim Jennings has been vocally urging his fellow legislators to prioritize this issue since 2019, when a flash flooding incident left the borough with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Two summers ago, a washed-out culvert on State Route 191 required emergency replacement, forcing the borough to take out a $200,000 loan to cover the repairs.

“In an instant, things get washed out,” said Jennings, who chairs the stormwater committee. “It’s really hard to budget for something like that in an emergency situation when you have other needs within the borough.”

Aside from the town’s placement at the bottom of two hills, near the Lackawaxen River and Dyberry Creek and many unnamed tributaries, Jennings attributes Honesdale’s flood risks to deteriorating infrastructure.

“Major infrastructure dates back to the 1950s… there were some updates in the 1970s,” he said. “It’s just an old system.”

The old system has caught the attention of state lawmakers, who on August 31 announced that the borough had been awarded $500,000 in state grant money to kickstart what’s been the dubbed the Vine Street Stormwater Mitigation Project.

“Our region is increasingly affected by severe weather events that overwhelm existing drainage capacity. The resultant flooding does damage to structures and facilities, requiring time and resources to repair,” said PA Sen. Lisa Baker. “It is beyond inconvenient; the cost becomes even higher if people are injured or killed. Substances and debris washing into local streams adversely affect water quality and aquatic life.”

A steep road located by St. John the Evangelist’s church, Vine Street experiences some of the worst drainage problems in the area, but the scope of the project is more far-reaching than its name suggests. According to Rep. Jonathan Fritz’s (PA-111) office, the project will cover 140 “densely populated” acres, including Crestmont Development near Honesdale High School and large portions of hillside Ridge and Terrace Streets, the water from which runs down during heavy rainfall and culminates on traffic-heavy Fourth Street.

Geographically, the project will likely extend beyond the borough’s limits as well.

“The source of a lot of stormwater issues originate outside of Honesdale Borough boundaries,” borough secretary/manager Judith Poltanis said. “So it’s going to need cooperation from surrounding municipalities.”

The $500,000 grant is an early piece of the stormwater puzzle, but only a fraction of what it’s going to cost in the long run. The borough hasn’t found an exact estimate yet, but the phrase “in the millions” often gets thrown around during meetings.

At this point, the borough is still working on fully grasping the big picture. It has formed a stormwater task force which includes local officials and stakeholders and members from the county and state level too. Councilors recently contracted an engineering firm to create a digital inventory of the borough’s impervious surfaces—surfaces like streets, sidewalks and roofs into which stormwater cannot be absorbed. And the borough is working with Knecht to complete stormwater mapping to better understand the area’s hydrology.

“If you don’t understand what’s going on in any given area with the stormwater, you certainly can’t even attempt to try and fix it,” Knect said.

The borough is also actively on the hunt for grant-funding opportunities to begin raising the funds to see some results. Poltanis noted that residents shouldn’t expect to see results overnight.

“There are a lot of grant funds available from the state and federal agencies,” she said. “It usually takes two years before… you can actually begin a project and three years before you actually have a result from your efforts.”

In the meantime, flooding events are expected to happen more often and more severely, a symptom of a warmer climate. According to the website www.floodfactor.org—which provides flood risk analysis of communities throughout the United States—55 percent of properties in Honesdale are at risk for flooding. Nearly 500 properties were rated at “major” risk, and 450 were rated at “extreme” risk (the highest ranking). The number of properties at risk is expected to grow slightly—by about one percent—over the next 30 years. However, flooding events will most likely happen more times per year.

“A changing environment means higher seas, new weather patterns and stronger storms. As the atmosphere warms, there is more evaporation and more water available when it rains,” according to the site. “A warmer atmosphere also means warmer oceans, which can intensify flooding from hurricanes and offshore storms. Sea level rise also increases coastal flood risks, as higher seas mean there’s more water available when high tides and coastal storms cause flooding.”

Though time is of the essence, Jennings said that he’s going to push for solving these problems in creative ways that benefit the community in more ways than one.

“We have an idea of what the costs could potentially be, but what could the potential benefits be?” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to rethink the system a little bit so—yes, it moves the water; yes, it’s super efficient; yes, it’s safe—but could be cool, could be beautiful, could be a model for other small towns to follow.”

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