Ever since the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) drawdown of Somerset Lake in early February, the agency has been bombarded with questions about the dam and its future.
There have been few answers. But, solid information may not be far off.
The fish commission has scheduled some testing next week to gather information that can be used to formulate a plan to deal with the situation.
“The problem is eroding of the current breastwork,” said Len Lichvar, one of the commissioners who oversee operation of the PFBC. “It was apparently built on spring feeds back in the 1950s, which the engineers and technology of the time couldn’t detect.”
Somerset was already on the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) list of problem dams because its spillway was considered inadequate to handle a 100-year flood. As a result, it was inspected regularly, and one of those inspections discovered that water was seeping through the earthen breast, potentially weakening the structure and posing a threat to the heavily developed area of Somerset downstream.
So, the reservoir was lowered six feet last winter and has been held at that level since, relieving pressure on the dam breast.
“The seepage stops when the water level remains low,” PFBC Communications Director Eric Levis said in an email interview. “When it rains and the lake begins to fill, the seepage begins again.”
Regular visitors may have noticed that the lake level has increased lately.
“We have raised the water level some so the consultants can place a drilling barge on the lake and conduct geotechnical work, including borings into the lake,” Levis said. “That work is expected to start next week.”
The drilling will be an effort to find a stable spot to build a new dam breast, according to Lichvar.
“The idea is to get more specific information and draw up a new plan as to how me might address the integrity of the breast and meet the new flood regulations,” Lichvar said. “When that is done, perhaps over this winter, they will a develop new estimates and the Fish and Boat Commission will hold a pubic meeting in Somerset County to reveal what has to be done, and the cost.”
Regardless of the price tag, the outlook for the work is bleak.
“The Fish and Boat Commission has zero dollars to put into this, or any of the similar lakes across the commonwealth that face similar issues,” Lichvar said.
The agency’s website includes a list (at fishandboat.com/dams/) of 18 lakes in addition to Somerset that are or were classified as high-hazard dams by DEP. The site also includes estimated costs to fix each, where available, and the status of construction funding. The site’s estimate of $5 million to repair Somerset was made before seepage was found through the breast, so its cost is almost assuredly going to expand when all the data is considered.
But, even at $5 million, there was no money available to fix the problem.
“Our executive director suggested a watershed group or folks around Lake Somerset might get organized to get things moving on that,” fish commission biologist Rick Lorson said.
Lichvar, whose day job is manager of the Somerset Conservation District, picked up the suggestion. Earlier this year, the district put together a coalition of interested parties to brainstorm about funding.
“We took a proactive role in that,” Lichvar said. “I realized early on that, in order to secure funding, there would have to be at least local interest in preserving that lake, because it does generate $1.7 million dollars a year for the Somerset area economy. We don't want to lost a revenue generator. I put together a work group of about 40 people, including community groups, the fish commission, boating interests and politicians. There seemed to be a broad base of support to make the lake structurally sound and indicate to the decision-makers that funding needs to be generated in some shape or form. We have maintained contact with those people through an email list, and anyone can be placed on that list by contacting me at the conservation district.
“I know (State Rep.) Carl Metzgar is part of that group and has taken that charge to Harrisburg for the Legislature to consider. The Legislature has already found funding to fix a reservoir out east, and that was approved by the governor. We need the same type of political clout to have that done here. We’ll need the support of the community and our sportsmen to meet that challenge.”
Meanwhile, the lake remains lowered to the consternation of anglers, boaters and waterfowl hunters.
As Area 8 Fisheries Manager, Lorson is responsible for taking care of the lake’s fishery, and his office window looks out over the impoundment. The longer the water is held at its current level, the more concerned he becomes.
“My initial statement was that for the short term, a few months, it would not have much of an impact. We draw the lake down purposely over the winter for fish management purposes, and it has been very effective. The last survey we did here in the spring, the fishery was really in good shape, and I think that showed in angler catches, also, whether crappies, largemouth bass, walleye, channel catfish or muskies. Largemouth bass numbers were actually higher than we’ve ever seen.
“But with the lake six feet down, rather than acting like a 252-acre lake at full pool, it’s going to be acting like a 150-acre lake. And, a 150-acre lake is much more difficult to manage. The other thing that comes into play is less surface area, and less surface area means fewer fish because there’s just not as much water. So, it’s unfortunate all the way around. But, these dams are like a lot of other things. Lakes fill in and dams wear out, and that’s what’s taking place.”
Veteran waterfowl hunter Tony Marich said the drawdown will be an inconvenience for duck and goose hunters, but not one the can’t be overcome.
“With the smaller pool area, there won’t be as good of hunting opportunities as in a full pool situation,” he said. “But, there will still be opportunities. The difficulty will be in concealment on the mud flats. But, those who find concealment in the growth of smartweed, or take a portable blind along, I suspect will get some birds.”
The drawdown has been a benefit for at least one type of outdoor sport, however.
“I know a birdwatcher who goes there daily and has seen some incredible shorebirds,” said Marich, who spends a lot of time birdwatching when waterfowl are out of season. “He’s seen avocets and ruddy turnstones, and so have I. But, he’s seen things there I’ve never seen, a wide variety of shorebirds that are there because of the drawdown.”
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