Dam above South Williamsport in danger of breach, emergency funding requested

August 29, 2019
In The News

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT – Emergency funding is being requested for repairs to the Frank E. Heller Dam – recently classified as a high hazard with a potential risk for residents of Armstrong Township and South Williamsport and additional economic impacts for the Greater Williamsport Area. 

The dam, which was built in 1975, could face structural breach within the next five to 10 years, according to the Williamsport Municipal Water Authority. However, it added that should Lycoming County face a severe weather event, a collapse could come much sooner.   

A dam breach would send water rushing down Hagerman’s Run, along Route 554, through South Williamsport along Market Street and into the Susquehanna River. It’s estimated that over 2,600 people within 800 feet of its banks would be at risk – as well as homes and businesses between Maynard Street and the dike surrounding the South Williamsport Recreational Community Park. 

Economic costs to the region could be roughly $22.7 million, according to the authority.  

The Williamsport Municipal Water Authority has submitted an emergency grant request of $221,357 in preliminary engineering funds to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and hopes to receive approval by Sept. 30. 

The authority also has promised a match of $119,193, which brings the total preliminary engineering costs to $340,550. But, while the total cost of the entire project is unknown, it could rise above $1 million, according to the authority’s engineering firm. 

“This is not something we’re going to sit back on and wait to do,” said Michael Miller, executive director of the water authority. 

Two primary problems plague the dam. One is that its piezometer system, which measures the water flow and water pressure of the dam, doesn’t work properly. This means that should the dam fail, residents of the borough may not have advance warning. The second is the dam’s spillway wall, which leans into the spillway and is in danger of collapse. 

The spillway wall has shifted considerably over the years, causing visible leaning, which only grows worse over time, according to Eric Smithgall, director of engineering at the authority.

“This is the infrastructure project we should be working on,”  said U.S. Rep Fred Keller, of the 12th District. “You have the foresight to look ahead and get it done and we want to be a helpful partner.” 

Keller and state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, of Loyalsock Township, took a tour of the dam Wednesday. The U.S. and state- level representatives have championed the grant request and urge funding to be awarded. 

But approval of funds often relies on the level of need and other high priority request throughout the county, Wheeland said. He added that infrastructure problems like these affect communities across the United States. 

“Sometimes I’ve seen in government, if you ignore a problem, maybe it will go away,” Wheeland said. “This one isn’t going to go away.” 

While Armstrong Township and South Williamsport will be directly impacted, the dam also creates one of two primary watersheds used by the authority to service Williamsport with water, Miller said. 

Roughly 51,000 people in Williamsport, South Williamsport, Duboistown, and Loyalsock, Armstrong and Old Lycoming townships are supplied by the watershed.