Today's Story
More than 30 small dams have been removed from Pennsylvania rivers and streams in recent years, with many more planned for the future. Brad Linder has more.

Inflatable Dams
New technology tries to offer the best of both worlds.
July 25, 2002

By Dan Simon

While many communities are reassessing the need for small dams and considering removing old ones, some communities are turning to technology to permit what they consider the best of both worlds — a now you see it, now you don't inflatable dam.

The idea is to use inflatable rubber bladders to impound enough water to permit the use of power boats on such rivers as the Susquehanna where it flows through the Wyoming Valley region of Pennsylvania. Two Pennsylvania communities, Wilkes-Barre and Nanticoke have floated plans for such dams, far enough apart to permit both of them to be built. The Wilkes-Barre project has the backing of U.S. Representative Paul Kanjorski.

Engineers would like to install an inflatable dam on the Susquehanna River at Wilkes-Barre, Penn., to increase summer recreational opportunities. ©Photo by Dan Simon for GreenWorks.

" The dam would be inflated until it's about nine feet high," said James J. Brozena, Luzerne County engineer. "It will fill up like an inner tube. Once inflated, water will continue to flow over the top of it, once it's created a 400-acre lake that's about four and a half miles long.

"It creates opportunities for boating, fishing and jet-skiing, maybe sculling too. The river itself isn't that wide, maybe 900 feet on average. It's also not deep enough for big boats, maybe just eight or 10 feet."

Wilkes Barre's problem is during dry summers, the river's frequently too low for even small powerboats he said. In theory, the inflatable dam would hold back water during the wettest months of early spring when it shouldn't be missed from downstream flows. Come October or so, engineers let the air out, and the deflated dam rests on the river bottom out of the way.

"Typical summer depths range from zero to about five or six feet deep," Brozena said, "and they're typically closer to zero.

"We're just trying to keep some water in the river."

Neither the Wilkes-Barre, nor the Nanticoke dams would present any increased risk of flooding.

Inflatable dams use rubber bladders that are inflated by air to impound water in the spring and deflated when the boating season ends. ©Photo by Dan Simon for GreenWorks.

"Automatic sensors monitor the river level," Brozena said. "As the river rises and falls they adjust the level of the dam accordingly."

For those thinking this is the stuff of science fiction, such a beast already exists less than 40 miles away in Shikellamy State Park, near Sunbury, Penn. This dam is also inflated in the spring and deflated in the fall providing recreational opportunities for boaters and fishermen.

The Adam T. Bower Dam is the world's largest inflatable dam and when erect, creates a 3,000-acre impound known as Lake Augusta. The dam backs up water for six and a half miles up the Susquehanna's north and west branches. They say the bass fishing at the base of the dam is pretty good.

The Wilkes-Barre project is the farther along of the two dam proposals. While there's no specific funding in place for it, the Army Corps of Engineers does have a flood control project for the river in place and some money from that effort could go toward the inflatable dam. Brozena thinks it could be in place by 2005 "if all the planets align properly."

The Adam T. Bower Dam is the world's largest inflatable dam and when erect, creates a 3,000-acre impound known as Lake Augusta. ©Photo by Dan Simon for GreenWorks.

Not everyone feels the idea is a good one. Members of the Greater Wyoming Audobon Society fear it could adversely impact area waterfowl, plus damage the riparian environment the avian community relies on.

While members of the organization weren't available to interview for this story, a position paper at their web site put forth their reservations, including concerns that the Susquehanna River's fishery might be degraded by the presence of an inflatable dam.

The Wilkes-Barre proposal wouldn't flood nearly as large an area mainly because the river in that area is heavily levied. There are however, trees along the bank whose root systems could be affected, plus some areas along the four and a half mile impoundment where water that could be affected by a rising water table that would accompany the rising waters.

Once the dam is inflated, water flow will be back to usual (which in the summer would be minimal with or without the dam.) The theory is you're inflating in the spring when the river's up and once the impoundment is filled, additional water spills over the top of the dam. There are some small islands in the impoundment area that would be flooded and the Audobon Society is arguing that this flooding would kill the trees on the islands.

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More on dam removal.

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More Info

Gannet Fleming, Inc.
A feasibility study for a Wilkes-Barre, Penn. Inflatable dam.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Press Release naming the Sunbury dam with information about it.

Greater Wyoming Valley Audobon Society
Group's position paper.

Manatawany Dam Removal (Video)
Watershed Weekly Video about the Manatwany Dam Removal.

60 Dams in 9 States to Come Out in 2001
Watershed Weekly "Our National Watersheds" Feature on Dam Removal.

The Environmental Reporter is a partnership of and WHYY Radio, which makes all reports available to public radio stations throughout Pennsylvania.