Volunteers scramble to preserve man-made Washington County recreation spot

| Saturday, June 8, 2013, 12:29 a.m.

Tom Auld relaxed in a folding chair as he manned three fishing rods from the edge of Canonsburg Lake.

Two other fishermen tried their luck aboard a flat-bottomed boat in the distance.

A blue heron waded nearby, and a black snake wriggled across the water.

“I wouldn't do it, but I hear you can walk across there,” said Auld, 58, of Washington, pointing to the bridge and causeway that carries McDowell Lane across the lake from Route 19. “It needs dredged.”

Like most Pennsylvania lakes, Canonsburg Lake is man-made, said Rick Lorson, area fisheries manager with the Fish and Boat Commission. They all face similar problems.

Without costly restoration, man-made bodies of water naturally convert to wetlands and eventually to dry land. Man can accelerate the process: Development causes more sediment and fertilizer runoff from farms and residential communities generate an overabundance of nutrients, Lorson said.

“These lakes are getting older and have lots of buildup,” he said. “Canonsburg is one that has that progression accelerated the most.”

The Fish and Boat Commission manages many of the state's man-made lakes but says it doesn't have money to restore all to their original conditions. A figure for how much the agency spends annually on habitat management was not available.

The volunteer group Save Canonsburg Lake, under the guidance of Chartiers Creek Watershed Association, formed more than a decade ago to raise money and awareness for the waterway, which Peters and North Strabane flank in Washington County.

The group raised about $1.25 million — a herculean effort for a community group but short of the $2.1 million needed to begin stopping sediment from filling the 70-year-old impoundment and to remove accumulated silt.

“We will continue to work to get what we can as we move forward,” said Jennifer Dann, a watershed specialist with Washington County Conservation District and member of the Save Canonsburg Lake committee. “People don't realize how much it costs to dredge a lake.”

Alcoa Inc. dammed Little Chartiers Creek in 1943 to create an industrial water supply. It turned the impoundment known as Canonsburg Lake over to the state in 1958.

A tenth of a foot of silt fills the lake annually, raising its deepest point from nearly 43 feet to less than 12 feet and reducing the once 76-acre lake to about 63 acres, according to the watershed association. Runoff comes from 46 square miles.

Pennsylvania has about 2,500 lakes. Mother Nature formed about 50 of them, including several “kettle” lakes around Erie and south to Mercer County that retreating glaciers formed. Most others are in the Pocono Mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

There are nearly 50,000 lakes across the United States, according to the National Lakes Assessment report from the Environmental Protection Agency. More than 20,000 are man-made — including all 4,690 in the Southern Appalachians region that stretches from Northeastern Alabama to Central Pennsylvania.

“This isn't Minnesota,” said Charles Bier, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy's senior director of conservation science. “We don't have a wealth of natural lakes, so we built them.”

Many lakes in this region were built as part of state park projects from the 1950s to 1970s and for flood control after rising rivers devastated Pittsburgh in 1936, Bier said.

What is happening at Canonsburg Lake is similar to what North Park Lake faced several years ago, he said. Allegheny County officials in 2009 paid to drain, dredge and rehab that lake. The restoration cost $21 million.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimated the cost of dredging Canonsburg Lake between $2 million and $20 million, depending on the project's scope. To remove 3 feet of sediment upstream of McDowell Lane would cost an estimated $3 million.

The Army Corps proposed a $6 million project to dredge the lake and build a weir, or dam, at the mouth of Little Chartiers Creek to slow water flow and trap sediment. That would require $2.1 million in local money.

Federal budget woes made the plan a long shot, Dann said, but the Save Canonsburg Lake committee is working toward that goal.

“They have fought very hard to keep this lake,” she said.

The Fish and Boat Commission last year repaired the lake's concrete gravity dam, which encouraged the committee. Its members had worried the commission would drain the lake.

“The thought of Canonsburg Lake not being here as people remember it is devastating,” Dann said.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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