A lone kayaker paddles across the calm water, a green heron hunts the water's edge and sunfish rise to floating insects. Colyer Lake, once a popular Centre County fishing and boating attraction, is a diminutive shadow of its former 77-acre self. Only about 30 acres of water remain since the 2013 drawdown - the second to affect the impoundment.
The lake level was dropped ten feet in 2003 due to safety concerns with the now 48-year-old dam. It was subsequently drawn down an additional 7 feet in 2013 after more safety issues were discovered. The lake was scheduled to be completely drained, but this decision was put on hold to see if an alternative solution could be found.
Today, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's "lake" is mostly a sea of grasses and wildflowers, offering little in the way of public recreation. With an estimated $6-7 million needed for dam repairs and the Commission on a Spartan budget, it looked as if it would stay that way.
All of that is about to change. Money has been secured and bids for the dam repair project were let on July 15, with a deadline of August 13, when the bids will be opened.
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"It usually takes 45 to 60 days for the Department of General Services to review the bids and award the contract," stated PFBC Chief Engineer Michelle Jacoby. "If all goes well, construction will begin in October, 2014, and be finished by November, 2015."
It was the development of a public-private partnership that will save Colyer Lake. A little over a year ago, the non-profit Save Colyer Lake, Inc. was formed - dedicated to the speedy restoration of its namesake lake. Now, the lake has friends.
With over 500 members strong - led by Centre County judge and Potter Township resident Thomas Kistler - Save Colyer Lake has raised over $138,000 so far to support their cause. They also raised enough public and political awareness to secure funding for the project.
"We were angry with the Fish and Boat Commission when they said that they were draining the lake," Kistler commented. "However, we knew that getting angry with them wouldn't get us anywhere. Instead, we decided to help them get the dam repaired."
Partly as a result of the group's efforts, the November 2013 transportation bill contained an allocation of state funds for repairing "high hazard unsafe dams."
"Senator Jake Corman and others were very helpful in making that happen, but then we needed to work to make sure that Colyer Lake was at the top of the list," Kistler noted. "We also encouraged the Fish and Boat Commission to move forward with the design and permitting process."
Although the exact cost of the repair will not be known until after the contract is awarded, the construction project is being funded with $5.85 million from the state’s capital budget, $1.25 million from the PFBC as a result of the transportation law, and $100,000 from the Save Colyer Lake group.
According to Jacoby, the repair involves putting a new and stronger drainage system on the downstream side of the dam, the construction of a new spillway and making the dam able to withstand a larger storm event.
"The top of the earthen breast will be lowered a couple of feet and then covered with roller compacted concrete. The concrete will be covered with a layer of soil and planted," Jacoby said. "In the end, the dam will look much like it does now, with the same pool level that it had prior to 2003."
Kistler explained that Save Colyer Lake has additional plans for enhancing the fishery before the dam is refilled. "Graymont in Pleasant Gap has donated 300 tons of lime to help neutralize the acidic water that will flow into the repaired lake, and we are planning to add fish habitat structures. Now we are looking for a trucking company or volunteers with dump trucks to haul and spread the lime in the dry lake bottom."
Jacoby and the PFBC are happy with the liming and the positive relationship with Save Colyer Lake.
"It is fantastic what they have worked out to acquire the donation of the lime. It will allow for a much stronger fishery once the lake is refilled," Jacoby stated. "Save Colyer Lake has been amazing with coordinating things, raising public awareness, supplying matching funds. Having that group is one of the key points to getting funding from the general fund."
Save Colyer Lake has about $38,000 to put towards improvements.
Kistler would like to see restrooms, a pavilion, improved fish habitat and a walking path with a boardwalk and bridges at the lake. To arrange that, he needs another public partner - enter Potter Township.
"We would like to apply for a $250,000 grant from the Department of Community and Economic Development," Kistler remarked. "In order to do that, we need a municipality to sign on to the project."
At their quarterly meeting on July 15, the commissioners approved a 25-year lease of the land surrounding the lake, but not the dam, to Potter Township. The lease, as is currently written, stipulated that the township would be responsible for all routine maintenance on the property. This development came as a surprise to Potter Township.
"We want to support Save Colyer Lake in their applying for a grant and we promised to set aside a couple thousand dollars to pump the restrooms and purchase toilet paper and other supplies if volunteers do the maintenance," commented the chairman of the Potter Township supervisors Dick Decker. "A lease was never discussed. Considering the legal ramifications, I don't think that the supervisors or our taxpayers will go for this long commitment.
"I'm glad that something is being done to repair the lake, but the lease [in its present form] is a hang-up," Decker said in a telephone interview.
All parties are hopeful that this difficulty can be overcome; however, the lease is not necessary for dam repair to get underway.
Pre-construction emptying of the lake will begin in September, followed by a fish salvage operation to be conducted by PFBC fisheries management staff. According to the Commission, the fish will be distributed into local waters that are suitable for the warmwater fish species.
Public access will be restricted once construction begins this fall. The lake will be reopened for fishing in 2016.