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March flooding delays repair work on Delaware Canal

Once again, the historic canal lies wounded. Near Upper Black Eddy, a 40-foot section of its wall is gone, draining any water that passes. Farther south, in Lumberville, the stone wall of a lock has collapsed.

Once again, the historic canal lies wounded.

Near Upper Black Eddy, a 40-foot section of its wall is gone, draining any water that passes. Farther south, in Lumberville, the stone wall of a lock has collapsed.

Elsewhere, long stretches of the Delaware Canal's once-smooth towpath are closed between Easton and New Hope, chewed by floodwaters down to a rocky subsurface.

"It's been without water most of the time we've been here," said Jack Donohue, who has lived along the canal in Lumberville for five years and serves as president of the volunteer organization Friends of the Delaware Canal.

A year ago, it had appeared all but certain that, for the first time in six years, the 58.9-mile canal finally would be filled with water from end to end. At long last, the ravages of three major mid-decade floods appeared to have been fully repaired.

Instead, more frustration ensued.

On March 11, the rain-swollen Delaware River overran its banks, submerging much of the canal with a damaging flow. It happened just as state workers were about to release water through the length of the onetime 19th-century conduit for mule-drawn barges carrying coal from Easton to Bristol.

On the New Jersey side, the Delaware and Raritan Canal escaped significant damage, blessed by more protective topography. And even when floods have breached the D&R in the past, its status as a money-producing source of drinking water for New Jersey residents has led to rapid repairs.

"If there is a breach, we are responsible for fixing it," said Henry Patterson, executive director of the New Jersey Water Supply Authority.

Not so across the river, where the canal is parkland beholden to state and federal assistance. By even the rosiest of timetables, another year of damage assessment, bid-letting, and repair work lies ahead, officials in Pennsylvania say.

"It's tough," Donahue said. "It's certainly a lovely asset for our area, and something that we really want to have back in business."

The good news is that last month's harm was a small fraction of the wreckage wrought by devastating floods in 2004, 2005, and 2006, said Rick Dalton, manager of Delaware Canal State Park.

No estimate of repair costs has been made; state engineers will be making assessments later this month.

But, Dalton said, "it's nowhere near what we've seen in the past. After the first flood in 2004, we were saying it was about $10 million. If I had to guess, $1 million or $1.2 million would be about it this time."

Even that amount might be hard to get today, given Gov. Corbett's proposed budget austerity. But oddly enough, the weak economy of the last few years might be the canal's salvation.

That's because the original $40 million repair estimate from the 2004-06 flooding left a surplus. The recession drove construction costs down, leaving the final tab at $28 million, Dalton said.

So the state, which was responsible for 25 percent of the original $40 million, still has money set aside.

"We were going to use that money for the canal, to do some relining and other projects," Dalton said. "Now we're going to use it for flood repairs. If that money wasn't there, I don't know what we'd do."

Most of the expense will be rebuilding the towpath, Dalton said, adding that the damages were lessened by changes made to the path's surface during the last round of repairs.

Before, the towpath had been groomed with a surface of finely crushed rock to better accommodate biking and other recreation. But that was easily washed away.

Now, much of the towpath has been planted with deep-rooting grasses designed to resist erosion.

"What we saw was that in the areas where the seed had taken hold and grass had been growing for a while, it held up pretty well," Dalton said. Damage was worse in stretches where the grass had not yet filled in.

Dalton said he hoped that contractors could begin repair work by mid- to late summer. Park crews have already fixed sections of towpath south of New Hope that sustained minor damage.

In fact, the parkland between New Hope and Bristol emerged virtually unscathed from last month's flooding. The towpath is open and the canal is filled with water.

Completed in 1832, the canal held commercial barges until 1931. Supporters estimate that the park draws up to a million visitors annually. They consider it invaluable as a nature habitat, as a recreational greenway between Philadelphia and northeastern Pennsylvania, and as a historical showcase for a bygone era.

"We're kind of half in business now, from New Hope on down, and it's beautiful, it's really nice," Donahue said. "Now we just have to get this other half going."

That was the plan last July, when a festive re-watering celebration was held in Easton.

Hikers, bikers, kayakers, history buffs, and nature enthusiasts cheered as a ceremonial ribbon was cut and a water gate was opened at the convergence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers.

But as river water was introduced into the long-parched canal bed, leaks developed, slowing the process.

Dalton blamed drought conditions last year and "the fact that it hadn't been watered in six years. A lot of it is lined with clay, and when you let clay dry out, it cracks. It always leaked, but it seemed that it was leaking a lot more than before."

By March, Dalton said, "we were pretty capable of watering the whole thing. We would have started filling it in early March, right around the time it flooded."

At times, Dalton acknowledges, he envies his across-the-river counterparts at the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

In times of flooding, bends in the river drive the current more against the Pennsylvania side, while New Jersey is better shielded, he said.

And the D&R's status as a major water supplier to central New Jersey - diverting 100 million gallons of river water daily to 1.5 million customers - speeds the repair process. So do the resulting millions in revenue.

"You can't interrupt the water supply to that many people," said Ernest Hahn, executive director of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission.

"It makes all the difference in the world," Hahn said. "If this was simply a park, we'd be in the same situation that Pennsylvania's in."