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Parkland News

Wehr’s Dam construction almost complete six years after referendum

SOUTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. — Back in 2016, South Whitehall Township voters approved a referendum that would let the township borrow up to $600,000 to repair Wehr’s Dam, a 100-year-old concrete dam on Jordan Creek.

The referendum came after debate about whether the dam should be removed entirely because of the cost of the repairs and the potential negative environmental impact of the dam.

  • Wehr's Dam repairs are set to be complete in mid to late January
  • The majority of construction is complete, but the gabion baskets still need to be repaired
  • This development comes six years after voters in South Whitehall voted to allow the township to borrow $600,000 to repair the dam

Now, six years later, the dam repairs are almost complete. Township Director of Operations Herb Bender said the repairs likely will be finished in mid- to late January.

History of the dam

Wehr’s Dam was built in 1904 for Wehr’s Mill, a grist mill that was on the north side of Jordan Creek near the Covered Bridge.

The mill, which was built in 1862, previously used a wooden dam located farther upstream.

The dam was needed to operate the mill because it used water wheels for power. The dam backed up water from the creek, creating a reserve of water that then turned the water wheels and generated power.

According to the book “South Whitehall Then and Now” by Paul Wieand, the concrete dam was “considered the best constructed dam in this part of the country” when it was built.

Repairing the dam

To do the repairs, contractors had to create a “cofferdam” — a structure that blocks off the water from the dam so concrete can be poured.

The cofferdam at Wehr’s Dam is made of stakes driven deep into the ground and a tarp, diverting the water to the other side of the dam.

Contractors then installed rebar, or a steel bar used to reinforce concrete. Bender said part of the reason why the repairs took so long is because the engineers originally ordered the rebar in the wrong size.

The drawings used to order the rebar were from the original dam, and the measurements on them were off by almost a foot and a half.

Now, the rebar has been installed and the concrete has been poured. The only thing left to do is repair the gabion baskets — boxes full of rocks that help slow erosion — on both sides of the dam.

Olivia Marble
The covered bridge near Wehr's Dam in South Whitehall Township.

Funding the repairs

In 2014, nonprofit environmental group the Wildlands Conservancy approached the township about removing the dam. The group argued the dam was harmful to the wildlife in Jordan Creek and offered to remove it at no cost to the township.

But many township residents demonstrated in favor of keeping the dam, citing its historical significance and beauty, and the township Board of Commissioners voted against removing it.

In 2016, voters approved a ballot initiative authorizing the township to borrow up to $600,000 for the eventual repair of the dam.

But later, estimates showed the cost exceeding the amount set aside.

Former South Whitehall Township Commissioner Matthew Mobilio argued at the time that since repairing the dam could cost more money than the voters approved, maybe the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“I appreciate it, and I think it's beautiful…But looking at it from a purely economic perspective, and where does it make sense to spend the money, it just didn't make sense to me,” Mobilio said in a recent interview.

“Families bring their children; people of all ages go and sit by the water and listen to it running over the dam... At any time of day, you can see multiple people there just enjoying the serenity of that whole area."
South Whitehall Township Commissioner Diane Kelly

Other commissioners disagreed. Commissioners President Diane Kelly said the dam is historical, and it serves as a gathering place for the community.

“Families bring their children; people of all ages go and sit by the water and listen to it running over the dam,” Kelly said. “At any time of day, you can see multiple people there just enjoying the serenity of that whole area. So I think that's one of the reasons why it's such a jewel for the township.”

After the project went out to bid, contractors came back with costs significantly under initial estimates. Bender said the repairs will cost the township about $358,000 — a little more than half of what township residents agreed to let the township borrow for the project.

According to Kelly, the dam will need maintenance in the future, but that maintenance likely won't require a large amount of funding each year.

“It’s really a low-hazard dam,” Kelly said.