The Lewes Board of Public Works is tasked with, among other things, ensuring the public has access to reliable power, clean drinking water, efficient sewage disposal and safe paths of travel. These amenities can be taken for granted from day to day, but their absence is quickly noted should they no longer be available.
In an effort to ensure all of its assets can remain functional during floods and extreme weather events, the BPW has formed a committee assigned to analyze how resilient its operations are.
The group met for the first time July 6 and outlined its purview. Attending that meeting were Chair D. Preston Lee and committee members Austin Calaman, Bob Heffernan, Sumner Crosby, Barbara Curtis and Mark Prouty. Lewes Councilwoman Candace Vessella was added Aug. 3 to represent mayor and city council. Panetta, Robin Davis and Sharon Sexton attended as participants; they are not committee members.
During the first meeting, members decided they should analyze critical infrastructure assets and infrastructure as opposed to houses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency specifies critical assets separately and prefers to build higher safety into critical utility infrastructure.
The wastewater treatment plant, one of the most critical assets BPW has, is currently being studied by GHD, a consulting firm that has suggested hardening the plant by 2050.
Issues discussed at the first two meetings included sea-level rise and saline intrusion into freshwater areas, as they may affect both water and wastewater operations. Alternative site options for city well fields are very limited, and nearby development of Mitchell’s Corner, the Village Center and the Village Center Cottages has caused concerns about the City of Lewes wellhead protection area. Calaman said the purchase of Jones Farm was an act to preserve the city’s water supply area.
Also of concern is the lack of redundancy for electrical power, which could cause dire consequences if the BPW is cut off from the Delmarva Power electric grid. The BPW has had talks with Delmarva Power and Delaware Electric Co-op about creating another power source, but space currently does not exist for an affordable connection. The grid is secure under normal circumstances; however, major weather events could create complications.
The mitigation committee agreed to look at things on a 30-year term and use the higher end of predictions contained in the Delaware Climate Action Plan.
The committee discussed moving the wastewater treatment plant away from the flood zone, but Lee said there’s no site available for relocation. Regarding the GHD recommendation of hardening the plant by 2050, Panetta said the maintenance cycle is at its peak, and a plan could be developed to follow through on the study’s suggestions as components require replacement over the next 30 years. The property itself has little to no room for further development, so the BPW’s only other option is to send wastewater flow back to the county if the plant is not moved or hardened by 2050.
Outside faucets, while not considered BPW assets, were included in discussions. Low-lying outside faucets lacking vacuum breakers can cause backflow issues with flood water, possibly allowing intrusion into houses, Calaman said. Some power meters and transformers are also susceptible to rising waters, and Panetta, citing FEMA’s focus on critical infrastructure, said a more stringent standard could be created.
BPW currently has a sufficient number of transformers in reserve, but supply chain issues have increased the cost and delivery time for new ones. Officials said a natural disaster could affect the transformer shortage as well, because available supply is directed to the affected area, as during recent events in Kentucky and Texas.
Lewes Beach was brought up specifically as an area with low-lying transformers, and Calaman said the BPW is able to control blackouts and shut off power to mitigate any further damage if vulnerable areas face rising waters. Some areas of town still have aboveground wires and can experience loss of power for other reasons, including high winds and tree damage. Committee members discussed undergrounding those wires, as is required for all new developments, but the benefits of less maintenance and fewer disruptions are offset by the costs of installation and increased difficulty of repairs to underground wires.
The mitigation committee’s next meeting is set for 1 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 31, at the BPW, and is open to the public. The group will discuss flood elevation and wind load design criteria for 2050 as well as the preparation of a long-range utility mitigation plan. George, Miles and Buhr’s Coastal Resiliency Group leader Brent Jett, who is also a certified floodplain manager, is scheduled to give a presentation on potential wind loads from frequent and intense storms projected for 2050. The agenda and webinar are available at lewesbpw.com.