Atlantic City’s largest drainage canal hasn’t been cleaned out in a century, but officials hope Hurricane Sandy provides momentum for a $6.4 million project to do just that.

The city has no record of cleaning out the canal under Baltic Avenue, to which 29 percent of the resort drains, since it was built in 1913, city Engineer Bill England said.

Documents from 1932 and 1987 indicate the canal was not clogged at those times. The 1932 report, however, shows accumulated debris measured as thick as 18 inches.

And in 1998, then-city Engineer Bill Rafferty told The Press of Atlantic City he feared sediment had almost completely filled in the 15-by-11-foot pipe that runs about 5,000 feet from Atlantis to Rhode Island avenues.

“I very definitely think its functioning has been comprised,” Rafferty said Monday. “If the sediment had been getting flushed out, (effects from Sandy) wouldn’t have been as bad.”

Efforts by Rafferty and those before him — including one push in 1967 — to improve the infrastructure never yielded any action, mainly because the city never got the money together.

The city, however, is closer to seeing the project to fruition than ever before, having banked $3.2 million of its own money for the endeavor. Officials also have a commitment for $2.2 million more from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through flood-mitigation funding made available after a northeaster in November 2009, England said.

Plans call for metal gates and pumps powered by on-site diesel-fuel electric generators at the canal’s outflows to the bay at Rhode Island Avenue near Fishermen’s Park and Atlantis Avenue, a blocklong extension of Georgia Avenue, city engineering documents show.

The improvements would enable the city to clear sediment because those improvements would allow for proper tidal control for the first time since the canal was laid, England said.

At least three times as big as the resort’s next largest drainage pipe, the Baltic canal cannot be cleaned like narrower systems.

Typically, high-capacity machinery suctions water from portions of those smaller pipes while crews access work areas through manholes. Applying the same methodology to a canal as big as the one under Baltic Avenue would be like trying to use a vacuum to remove sand from the beach, deputy city engineer John Feairheller said.

“Pipes generally are designed to be self-cleaning … by understanding (anticipated) flow rate ... and picking the right size pipe,” England said.

Those factors determine the velocity of the water, which needs to be strong enough to carry debris through the system and prevent it from settling out, he said.

In the Baltic canal, however, it’s likely that the water isn’t flowing fast enough, said Rafferty, who is now Cumberland County’s engineer and acting public works director.

The proposed changes would let the city address that. They would not have prevented damage from Sandy, as the recent storm is considered a 50-year event and the new pump and gate system would protect up to a 10-year event if all other conditions in the city stay the same, Feairheller said.

But Rafferty said the planned upgrades would have diminished flood damage — and that the city being so close to implementing them “is great news.”

Before anything more can happen, the city needs permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and another $1 million from the U.S. Economic Development Agency. EDA representatives did not respond to calls or emails.

Army Corps spokesman Steve Rochette said the federal agency will not issue permits until it reviews additional information requested from the city, which England said has been provided.

Once they secure EDA funding and the Army Corps permits, officials can start advertising for a contractor. If the rest of the steps — hiring someone for the job, getting final project approvals, etc. — happen as expected, work could begin as soon as next summer.

That’s an aggressive, optimistic timeline, though, and even if it happens like that, the project will take 12 to 18 months, England said.

The Baltic Avenue canal also is one step in a multiphase, citywide flood-mitigation project that will entail replacing bulkheading along intracostal waterways as well, England said.

All of that means that in the best-case scenario, the city’s drainage and flood-control systems will remain compromised — and needed infrastructure projects unrealized — through the end of 2014.

Getting the money for engineering projects generally proves difficult because they don’t spark much interest until their need is demonstrated in a dramatic fashion that inconveniences people — or worse — as with the flood damage caused by Sandy, Rafferty said.

In addition to stimulating public interest, Sandy will make available more grant money for such projects, including the bulkheading and other components in Atlantic City’s overall flood-mitigation plan, England said.

“Funding agencies will be looking to (support) mitigation projects as result of this storm, recognizing that it’s a good investment to … minimize damage,” England said. “It makes sense to invest in preventive measures rather than constantly paying for damages after the fact.”

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