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Delay in Donegal Lake project will send fishermen casting elsewhere until 2020

Paul Peirce
| Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, 1:03 p.m.
Jeff Kuhns, 78, of Donegal Township, owner of Scott's Bait Shop, poses for a portrait in front of a mostly drained Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Jeff Kuhns, 78, of Donegal Township, owner of Scott's Bait Shop, poses for a portrait in front of a mostly drained Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Jeff Kuhns, 78, of Donegal Township, poses for a portrait inside his bait shop, Scott's Bait Shop, across from Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Jeff Kuhns, 78, of Donegal Township, poses for a portrait inside his bait shop, Scott's Bait Shop, across from Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Four Mile Run empties into what is left of Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Four Mile Run empties into what is left of Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
The earthen dam at Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The earthen dam at Donegal Lake, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.

Much like the water level of the 90-acre lake that was just yards from his front door, Jeff Kuhns saw profits dry up at his tackle and supply business at Donegal Lake last fall after the popular fishing destination was drained.

“We took quite a hit,” said Kuhns, who operates Scott's Bait Shop. “We had a few regulars come in to get bait occasionally when they'd go fishing at other lakes in the area, but it's been a really bad year.”

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission ordered the lake drained and fish relocated more than a year ago in preparation for a $6.5 million dam replacement project that has yet to begin.

State officials say the lake bed, now sprouting weeds and brush, will stay dry until spring 2020.

The project has not been shelved, said Eric Levis, a spokesman for the fish and boat commission.

“Construction time lines are estimates and often change. The fish salvage was conducted (a year ago) based on these original estimates,” he said.

The Department of General Services has told commission planners it plans to advertise the contract to rebuild the dam at Donegal later this month, Levis said.

“We expect construction will start early in the spring of 2018, be completed in 2019 and the lake refilled and reopened for public use in the spring of 2020,” Levis said.

In 2016, state officials earmarked $25.7 million for the repair of five high-hazard, unsafe dams, including Donegal Lake, and the design of two other dams.

A dam is considered unsafe if it has a deficiency that could cause substantial property damage and a probable loss of human life if it fails.

The earthen dam at Donegal was constructed in 1967, and its expected life was 50 years, the commission said.

Donegal Lake was drained in October 2016, and thousands of fish — trout, largemouth bass, channel cats, perch and bluegills — were scooped up and relocated.

At that time, the commission anticipated the project would be bid last spring and construction would start by late summer or fall. The lake would be refilled by fall 2018, and trout restocking would being in spring 2019.

But Kuhns, whose family has operated the bait shop for 32 years, said once the lake was drained there was little or no activity at the site.

“They've really been dragging their feet. And we haven't heard anything, to tell you the truth,” Kuhns said.

Levis declined to give a reason for the delay.

A neighbor of Kuhns along Donegal Lake Road, Jeff Shaffer, a taxidermist, said he was puzzled by the delay “since they made a big announcement over a year ago that the money was released for the project.”

“I can tell you that lake did look a whole lot better than that brush that has grown up in there since they drained it,” Shaffer added.

The recreational lake offers fishing and has a boat launching ramp. Township officials estimated last year that it generated about $1 million in tourism annually to the region.

The new time frame means it'll be more than two years before anglers stop at Scott's Bait Shop to check out rods and reels or pick up a cup of meal worms.

“It is certainly good news that they are going to do it,” Kuhns said. “I'm really glad to hear that ... although it's going to be delayed.”

Shaffer said he was “skeptical” whether the work would ever be done.

“That's the way the government works sometimes. The only thing they've really done in the last year is put big rocks in Four Mile Run, right down from the spillway so the silt doesn't flow downstream in the rain,” Shaffer said.

Last month, a similar draw-down and fish relocation was done at the 252-acre Lake Somerset in Somerset County. That lake was deemed a high-hazard dam years ago and had to be lowered by 6 feet in 2012 to reduce water pressure on the spillway.

That $6.7 million project also is expected to begin next year and will take two years to complete, according to the commission.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, ppeirce@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.

Correction: Nov. 13, 2017

This story was modified to correct which amenities Donegal Lake offers.

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