Refill ceremony set for Friday at Somerset Lake

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Jun. 8—SOMERSET, Pa. — Somerset Lake is being refilled.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and partners in the Somerset community will host a refill ceremony at 9:30 a.m. Friday at the lake to celebrate the completion of an $8 million rehabilitation project that began nearly 10 years ago.

Depending on rainfall amounts, by autumn the lake should safely return to full capacity. The lake's former earthen dam has been upgraded with a concrete infrastructure with a new spillway.

Instead of using golden shovels, officials will use golden buckets for a ceremonial stocking of several thousand minnows — the first step in re-establishing the local fishery, which has been closed since April 2018, they said.

After excessive seepage was found in January 2012, the water level was lowered by six feet to reduce pressure on the old dam, and an additional drawdown occurred in October 2017.

A large-scale fish salvage operation followed to remove and relocate most of the fish population before Thomas Construction, of Grove City, began the remediation project.

The 253-acre lake began to refill on May 25.

"It will slowly rise over the next several months," said commission communications director Mike Parker.

"When you fill it slowly, it controls the amount of sediments and keeps the water from basically rushing in there too fast," Parker said. "It controls the sediments and saturates the earthen part of the dam slowly and puts pressure on the dam's components slowly, so if there is any sort of issue along the way, we catch it early."

'Recreate the food chain'

Parker said the upgrades are actually over-built to modern code requirements.

"To fill up the lake and provide recreation and tourism opportunities — fishing and angling — that's what we're all about," he said.

"We have a multi-year restocking plan. Typically three to five years, where they start small. They put in what we call forage fish — small fish like minnows, sunfish. And then you add the largemouth bass and other species along the way that create a bigger fishery. But the small fish have to establish and reproduce. You basically recreate the food chain over the course of a few years."

Habitat structures made of rocks or wood and cinder blocks, turtle platforms and catfish spawning boxes are part of the extensive habitat work that will benefit fish and reptile populations.

Parker said that boaters and anglers need to be patient as the refill unfolds.

"There's a lot of growth in there," he said. "So you've got a lot of trees. You've got a lot of grass."

He said those plants will eventually die as the water level rises, and provide essential nutrients and habitat for the fish.

Some of the new habitat structures were crafted by local high school shop students, as well as the Somerset Lake Action Committee, which was formed at the onset of the dam seepage problem when the fish and boat commission admitted that it did not have the funds available to remedy the situation.

The group's chairman, Jeff Payne, said he's glad to see the lake return to life.

"Nine years and nine months later," Payne said, "here we're finally getting filled up. It's great."

Part of the action committee's vision was to create a park around the lake and expand recreational opportunities other than fishing and boating.

"That actually brought a lot more people on board with the whole concept," Payne said.

The action committee eventually raised about $75,000 through events, and the Somerset County commissioners matched that amount, with the sum going toward a new picnic pavilion, a handicapped-accessible fishing platform, signs, benches and garbage cans.

The action committee also matched a grant for building walking trails around the lake, which led to the formation of the Somerset Lake Nature Park. The grassroots committee also paid for habitat structures to be placed in the lake bed.

Somerset Conservation District Manager Len Lichvar, who was a fish and boat commission District 4 commissioner when he organized the public meeting that led directly to the formation of the action committee, said that he and others lobbied hard to get the funds from the governor's budget office to reconstruct the dam.

"Efforts of Somerset Lake Action Committee in securing matching funds through their many fine awareness efforts is what powered the ability to release the funds, because it was clear that the local community supported the effort to save the lake," Lichvar said.

"Without the volunteer efforts of Somerset Lake Action Committee, the timetable for the construction of the lake would have been significantly delayed, or it may not have even occurred."

The conservation district, in cooperation with Somerset Township, spent $60,000 reconstructing Wood Duck Road, which was eroding and damaging the lake.