Army Corps to county: Pick up cost of dredging creeks

October 21, 2013
Maps of Burgetts Fork in Slovan and Burgettstown show areas that Washington County will have to dredge to meet U.S. Army Corps of Engineers standards. - Barbara Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given Washington County a deadline of spring 2015 to complete dredging projects along 10 miles of streambed, saying if the county does not comply, the corps and federal taxpayers will no longer pay for flood damage.

The areas include:

• Gorby Run and Pike Run in California-Coal Center near Harrison and School streets.

• Burgetts Fork in Slovan and Burgettstown, from Langeloth Road to Raccoon Creek.

• Chartiers Creek from Hayes Avenue and Catfish Creek near the Washington-Canton Township boundary to George’s Run near St. Hilary Roman Catholic Church, Henderson Avenue.

• And parts of Chartiers Creek between the SNPJ Club, Strabane, to below North Central Avenue, Canonsburg, and from the Cavasina Drive area to Southpointe.

Planning Commission Director Lisa Cessna said Canonsburg Borough is responsible for maintaining a segment of Chartiers Creek between North Central and the Cavasina Drive area.

The county Planning Department is trying to estimate the cost of dredging. A $75,000 figure mentioned Monday at the department’s budget hearing was simply a guesstimate. “Who knows what we’re going to get into,” said Jeff Donahue, superintendent of recreation.

“This is new,” Cessna said. “We’ve never had to do this before.”

The corps informed her of the county’s new responsibilities by letter over the summer.

“We’re responsible for maintaining it to their standards,” she said. “It’s not a complicated project, but you need someone with the right equipment.”

“Who knows what the cost is going to be two, five or 10 years down the road,” said Roger Metcalfe, county finance director. “Nobody knows.”

Over the past several decades, the county Planning Department has been responsible in those specific areas for mowing banks and sometimes stabilizing them, hauling debris, rocks and vegetation from the streams, and, in winter, keeping them clear of ice floes.

But removing sediment is not a task that can be accomplished with a shovel and wheelbarrow, Donahue said. Dredging requires specialized equipment with an extra-long arm that stays far enough from the bank to maintain its integrity while still reaching into the channel. Water can’t run through the channel while this operation is being performed.

He called the newly assigned task “a giant responsibility” in places where the county has no easement, or legal right of access, to the waterway for equipment. Although the linear measurement of the creeks named totals 10 miles, because dredging would have to be performed from each side of a creek, the total project involves 20 miles.

Once the area is dredged, the county would have to find a place to dispose of the muck or sand, which may have to be tested for the presence of heavy metals or other substances.

“If we don’t maintain our responsibility, there’s a flood and things get damaged, the Army Corps does not pay for it,” Cessna said.

The county agreed to take on the responsibility for these streams at various times between 1952 and 1976 “for whatever reason,” Cessna said, noting that most of this action took place before she was born.

“I think everyone had their jaws drop a little on that one,” said Commissioner Harlan Shober, the only member of the board of commissioners who attended the Monday morning proceeding.

Scott Fergus, Washington County director of administration, recalled that the corps agreed to construct dams and work on various channel improvements in exchange for the county agreeing to maintain some streams. “That’s how we got Cross Creek Lake,” Fergus said. If the county-maintained creeks pass the corps’ annual inspection, then the county is relieved from liability if the streams flood.

The Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh did not immediately respond to an email inquiry for comment.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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