At age 70, time could be running out for Canonsburg Lake

Published Apr 15, 2013 at 9:57 am (Updated Apr 15, 2013 at 9:57 am)

In its heyday, Canonsburg Lake was a popular spot to drop a fishing line or spend some time in the summer sun.

Built in 1943 by ALCOA, the man-made lake would draw people from far and wide who would come to swim in a cove, have a snack in the grove or float a canoe.

Today, while the 70-year-old lake still has its natural beauty, it can no longer provide the attractions to area residents that it once did and, without much-needed attention, could be in its final stages of being a viable recreational venue.

Located along Little Chartiers Creek near Route 19 in North Strabane and Peters townships, the lake was created as a source of industrial water supply. In 1958, the lake and dam were donated to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to be managed by the state Fish and Boat Commission.

But, over the past two decades, the 76-acre lake has been on the decline. Areas have become shallow from lowering water levels and accumulations of silt and debris. No longer is there a cove in which to swim, water levels in certain areas are too low to float a boat and the grove is overrun with weeds and other vegetation.

Because of sedimentation, the original lake has been reduced to about 63 acres, and its maximum depth has been reduced from 42.6 feet to about 11.5 feet.

In addition, the lake has been degraded by excessive sediment inflow and phosphorous loading from agricultural fertilizers used in the watershed. As a result, the lake is now inhabited by increasing numbers of less-desirable fish species, such as gizzard shad and carp that thrive in warm, shallow, eutrophic waters.

“It was once such a beautiful site,” said Debra Valentino, who not only has lived along the lake but for the past 25 years but has spearheaded efforts to “Save Canonsburg Lake” for at least the past 13.

Valentino, who grew up in the Brookline section of Pittsburgh, said it was a treat to come to the lake with her family. So, when she left a stressful job and stumbled upon a house set on the shore of the lake, she couldn’t imagine a better scenario.

Shortly after moving to her new home, however, Valentino said she began to realize that the lake was in trouble.

“The geese were walking on water,” she said. “I saw the water becoming shallower and shallower.”

The lake has been managed over the years by the Fish and Boat Commission, which is not only to be responsible for the stocking of fish but maintaining all other amenities, including the dam at the lake.

But, Valentino said she was very disappointed when she approached the commission about repairing the dilapidated dam and restoring the lake to its original appeal.

“I was told that the commission relies on grassroots efforts to manage” such man-made lakes, she said. “Otherwise, they’ll just let them fill in and return to a stream.”

In 2000, Valentino said she had had enough and began a petition-signing campaign. On the opening day of trout season that year, Valentino said she walked around the lake and collected more than 300 signatures from people who wanted to see the lake restored.

Soon, Valentino was joined by a contingent of lake supporters who shared a common interest in saving the lake. Together, they formed the Canonsburg Lake Restoration & Improvement Committee. The committee operates under the auspices of the Chartiers Creek Watershed Association, a member of the Washington County Watershed Alliance.

At first, Valentino said she thought the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would help fund work since a new toll road was going to cross a portion of the lake. “But, the turnpike plans changed,” she said.

Then the group reached out to the Army Corps of Engineers. The organization was very receptive, recognizing the lake as an aquatic ecosystem in need of restoration.

Jim Bohn, committee member, said there are 150 different bird species at the lake, including a bald eagle. He said there used to be muskie and walleye in the lake but it’s too shallow now and the largemouth bass are on the decline.

According to a 2008 study, the Army Corps of Engineers said that if things continued at the same pace, there would be no deep water in the lake in 10 years and in 25 years there would be no lake, Valentino said.

“The lake is so shallow only one-third of it is boatable,” said Valentino.

The corps agreed to pick up 65 percent of the estimated $6 million needed to dredge the lake and repair the dam. A contingency, however, was that the Fish and Boat Commission would have to agree to lifetime maintenance of the lake.

Thinking their prayers had been answered, the lake committee began acquiring funds for the projects, including $550,000 in Local Share Account money and $200,000 from the townships.

Then, the Fish and Boat Commission refused to assume responsibility for the lake’s maintenance, although the commission did repair the dam in 2012 at a cost of $2 million.

Spokesman Eric Levis said the commission currently has other priorities and has no plans of making a financial commitment to Canonsburg Lake other than stocking it with trout.

“We are rebuilding other lakes across the state,” he said.

Levis added that the commission’s fishery staff obviously believes there is nothing wrong with the lake or it would not be stocking it.

The next obstacle to hit Valentino and her group was federal spending cuts, which forced the Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw its offer for the lake project.

“We’ve decided to do it on our own,” Valentino explained.

The group proceeded to hire the Michael Baker Corp., an engineering firm, to design a plan for the lake. The plan calls for partial dredging of the lake and the installation of a weir where the creek enters the lake. The weir will stabilize the water flow and help to slow silt and debris from entering the lake.

The cost of the plan, however, is $2 million. The committee has just $1.2 million, and time is of the essence as a portion of the money is in the form of a state Department Community and Economic Development grant that must be used by June 30, 2014.

“We realize we will never have enough money to dredge the entire lake,” Valentino stated. “But, we’re not giving up.”

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, said he again met with Fish and Boat Commission representatives six weeks ago, but again was told there is no money for the work.

“I reached out to the executive director and said, ‘We’re so close to getting this done,’” he said. “We’re not done working on them.”

However, Solobay also hopes to set up a meeting with the Washington County commissioners after the legislative session ends to see if there is any interest in the county taking over responsibility for the lake, much like Cross Creek Park. He suggested some Act 13 gas well impact fee money could possibly be used to help with the project to save what he called “a regional gem.”

The committee is also continuing efforts to raise the needed money, holding a variety of fundraisers and reaching out to corporate sponsors.

The committee has also set two fundraising events to celebrate Canonsburg Lake’s 70th anniversary. The first will be April 29 at the Table Lakeside and Walnut Ridge Vineyards, 200 N. Lakeside Drive, McMurray and the other on June 3 at Juniper Grill in McMurray.

“We’ve gone too long to stop now,” said Bohn. For more information about the lake or the upcoming fundraisers, contact the Canonsburg Lake Restoration & Improvement Committee at 724-746-4664.

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