Anglers, families and boating enthusiasts soon will have reason to rejoice because a major reconstruction project at Dutch Fork Lake in Washington County has been completed.
The year-long, $5.1 million project to rebuild the lake's concrete spillway and dam was wrapped up in recent days, and the process to refill the lake with water and fish should begin soon, said officials from the state Fish and Boat Commission, which owns the 53-year-old earthen impoundment in Donegal. Officials hope the lake can reopen in the spring.
"This is something we've been fighting for a long time," county Commissioner Larry Maggi told several dozen people who turned out Aug. 8 at the Claysville Community Center for an update on repairs to the 91-acre lake. The lake is used as a recreation site by local residents as well as people from as far away as Ohio and West Virginia.
Residents and members of the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association have been raising funds and lobbying legislators to repair and reopen the lake since late 2004, when it was drained and closed after the remnants of Hurricane Ivan damaged the concrete spillway.
For years, obtaining funding for the project seemed hopeless -- prompting county officials in 2008 to say they were "disgusted" by the lack of progress -- due mostly to the Fish and Boat Commission's revenue woes.
Although fishing and boating purchases statewide account for $3.2 billion in spending each year, the commission sees little of that revenue, relying instead on funding from three dwindling sources: fishing licenses, boat registrations and federal excises taxes.
"There's no way on our own that we could have raised enough money to rebuild Dutch Fork Lake," said John Arway, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission.
Characterized as a "high-hazard" dam due to serious flooding risks for the 325 homes downstream from the lake, the Dutch Fork project was a priority that eventually found funding through the state's H2O grant program. The General Assembly created the program several years ago to address critical water and sewer projects.
Local members of the state delegation, including state Rep. Peter Daley, D-California, and state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, joined forces to make the funding a reality.
"We all worked together to try to secure some monies," Mr. Daley said.
The commission's chief engineer, Jack A. Rokavec, characterized the Dutch Fork project as a "success story," especially in tough economic times.
The commission also completed a $2 million project to repair the dam at Canonsburg Lake this year, and plans should be moving forward soon to repair Wisecarver Reservoir and the Duke Lake Dam in the Ryerson Station State Park Lake, both in Greene County, Mr. Solobay said.
Along with the H2O grant funding, the commission received a revenue boost through a signing bonus of $2.24 million from Range Resources, along with 18 percent in royalty fees, to sign a five-year Marcellus Shale gas drilling lease for Dutch Fork Lake. The non-surface lease means the company won't install drill rigs on the lake or the 566 acres surrounding it but will drill beneath the property horizontally with rigs placed on neighboring private property.
This is the first time the commission has allowed drilling under one of its lakes or dams.
Some residents and environmentalists expressed concern about drilling at the recreational lake, but Mr. Arway said he was satisfied with safeguards that were negotiated into the lease with Range Resources. The safeguards include water monitoring by the independent Washington County Watershed Alliance.
"I can assure you there won't be any impact to the resources at Dutch Fork Lake" from drilling, said Mr. Arway, who said the new drilling revenue would be used to offset the $46.5 million the commission needs to make repairs to the state's 18 other high-hazard dams that have been deemed unsafe.
With construction on the dam and spillway at Dutch Fork completed, the commission's next step, Mr. Arway said, is to get approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection to begin refilling the lake.
Mr. Arway said DEP representatives have given the commission verbal approval and are expected to formally approve the plan soon, which will involve the removal of some trees that have grown in the lake bed during the past eight years and refilling of the lake in stages at a rate of two feet per week for about five months.
The refilling plan will allow the dry lake bed to absorb water slowly to ensure that the new spillway and other safeguards have been built properly, he said. It also will give the commission time to develop an emergency action plan with local first responders.
Before the refilling begins, the commission plans to remove trees in a 400-foot buffer zone near the spillway due to concerns about debris clogging the dam and to decide how many trees to leave on the lake bottom.
Commission biologist Dave Miko said the commission is saving "thousands and thousands of dollars" that it normally would spend to plant trees and other vegetation on the lake bed as fish habitat.
The plan, he said, is to remove trees and other vegetation to create a 12-foot boat lane the entire length of the lake and to eventually re-establish the fishery by stocking large mouth bass, bluegill, white crappies and channel catfish.
Mr. Miko said he hoped the lake would reopen by the start of trout season in April 2013, when the lake also could be stocked with adult trout.
"We will be open immediately for fishing when the lake reopens," he said.
Donna Riggle of the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association said her group is "thrilled" that the lake soon will be reopened.
"It was a wonderful, wonderful place to take the kids, especially when you think about the price of water parks," she said. "Probably half the people in Washington County remember going to Dutch Fork as children."
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.