Tamarack Lake dam called 'high hazard'
From left, fisheries biologists Tim Wilson, Brian Ensign and Freeman Johns work on Friday to pull in fish from Tamarack Lake in Meadville.
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The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is trying to net and relocate thousands of fish from Tamarack Lake as it rapidly empties the 562-acre Crawford County impoundment because of leaks and serious structural problems in the lake's northern dam.
The earthen dam, three miles southeast of Meadville and originally built for flood control 50 years ago, is not in danger of catastrophic failure, said commission spokesman Eric Levis. But an engineering inspection last week found "boils and a void in the dam embankment," he said, that necessitate the lowering of the lake to near empty.
"We don't see an immediate threat of collapse but we're draining it down," Mr. Levis said. "It's a priority to do the drawdown and we're lowering the water level as quickly as possible, by 6 to 12 inches a day. That will leave 3 to 5 feet of water in the lake. We haven't made a decision yet whether to completely drain it."
The state Department of Environmental Protection has applied a "high hazard" classification to the dam because its failure could result in loss of life and substantial property damage. Mr. Levis said the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has alerted residents living below the dam of the situation.
The water level of the long, shallow lake had already been lowered by 5 feet in November following an inspection that found water seeping through the base of the same dam. The reservoir is unique because it has dams at both the north and south ends.
Mr. Levis said once the water level is lowered further, a fuller inspection will be done to determine the extent of the damage and the cost of repairs -- a problem that is even harder to solve than where to put the netted fish.
Tamarack Lake, 90 miles north of Pittsburgh, is the 17th Fish and Boat Commission lake to be classified as a "high-hazard" dam impoundment in need of repairs. The commission does not have the money to repair Tamarack or the $46.5 million needed to repair eight others.
"We don't have an estimate for Tamarack because we do not yet know the extent of the damage, but we know that all of these dam projects are expensive," Mr. Levis said. "For the others, clearly we don't have that kind of money to do those repairs."
Some of the high-hazard dams in need of significant and expensive repairs are in the western end of the state. They include Glade Run Dam and the second phase of a replacement project at Hereford Manor Dam, both in Beaver County; Kyle Lake Dam, Jefferson County; and Somerset Lake Dam, Somerset County.
The commission said repairs to Tamarack's dam could take four to five years to complete once it finds the money to do the work.
But that's too long for Melissa Fuller, who has already seen the lake at the end of her backyard turn into a long mud flat dotted with stumps, the remnants of a five-decades-old clear cut that removed trees prior to creation of the lake.
"I'm a kayaker and this was a beautiful lake for that with blue herons, eagles and geese and ducks," said Ms. Fuller, who is an organizer of the local citizens group, Friends of Tamarack Lake. "But because this lake is important for flood control for Meadville and West Mead Township and it also serves as a water source for fighting house fires, the repairs should be a priority. I don't think that time frame is acceptable."
She said the group has contacted all state legislators in the region to push them to support allocation of dam repair funds.
Mr. Levis said the Fish and Boat Commission has had some successes in finding funding to fix dams and refill the lakes behind them, pointing to Dutch Fork Lake in Washington County, which cost $4 million, and the $3.3 million Opossum Lake repair project in Cumberland County.
"But it does take time. Dutch Fork took nine years and Opossum took five," he said. "Of course we want to save and repair them all."
In the past, when other reservoirs were drained, anglers were allowed to catch and keep as many fish as they could. But for safety reasons related to the rapid water drawdown, the commission has closed Tamarack Lake to fishing.
Instead, commission biologists and staff are netting as many of the lake's bass, bluegill, carp, catfish, muskellunge, perch and walleye as they can and transporting them to nearby Woodcock Lake, Canadohta Lake and French Creek, said Dave Miko, the commission's fisheries division chief.
Netting on Thursday, Friday and Saturday captured 48 walleye, five muskie, 32 largemouth bass and 3,775 pounds of panfish, including crappie, perch and bluegill.
Mr. Miko said Sunday afternoon that the transported fish seem to be surviving well so far. But because the fish are already stressed due to recent hot weather and water temperatures, it's likely thousands will go belly up as the water releases continue and the lake level gets lower.
In March 1999, when the commission drained Tamarack to work on the spillways at both dams, a month-long netting effort caught and relocated 6,000 bass, 1,000 walleye, 450 muskies and 25,000 pounds of panfish.
"That was in the spring when the water was cooler," he said. "At this time of year the fish are more stressed and we fully expect a rather large die-off of fish."
First Published August 6, 2012 12:16 am