Nature steps in, refills Speedwell Officials plan to quickly address clogged, weakened dam

By on November 30, 2011

The following was previously reported in the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era:

Speedwell Forge, the 106-acre lake, which was popular with fishing, boating and nature enthusiasts until it was drained in October, has apparently refilled itself by clogging the weakened dam on Hammer Creek with debris, according to a nearby resident.

But that’s not a good thing, Lakeview Drive resident Larry Long warned. There is less water flowing out than is coming in; if we get more rain this week and the water continues to rise, he said on Monday, the dam could break, flooding about 80 homes downstream.

Hammer Creek feeds into the man-made lake from the north and flows southeast from the spillway in Elizabeth Township.

The lake was drained in October after officials with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission discovered cracks and fissures in the dam caused by recent storm activity, including Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

Though nature played it’s role in refilling the lake this week, plans are already in motion to drain it again — and to keep water levels low until the dam can be rebuilt.

Although many people are fighting for the lake to be restored, commission officials have said their hands are tied until funds for reconstruction of the dam — estimated at $6.3 million — are found.

In the meantime, however, some remediation of the dam is necessary to prevent it from collapsing and flooding homes downstream on Hammer Creek.

Long remembers watching the lake fill up in less than two days when it was created in 1966. He said storm water runoff from a 27-square-mile area flows into Speedwell Forge, which is more than double what the average 100-acre lake would get.

In 1966, he said, workers finished construction on the dam just before the region was hit with a 10-inch snowstorm. He added that next day’s temperatures in the 60s and rain melted most of the snow within a day. The lake filled up in not more than two days.

Long said the same thing is happening now, Debris — mostly logs and branches — are floating down the creek with each rainfall and collecting in the dam’s catch basin and clogging up the grate that is supposed to keep the lake draining at a steady pace.

Passersby might rejoice to see the lake pretty much back to its previous condition, Long said. But without those expensive repairs the Fish & Boat Commission has been touting in recent weeks, the dam is in no condition to handle the building pressure from the water.

According to Long, the dam is weakened., which is something they’re going to have to address quickly. The immediate solution, at least in Long’s view, is obvious. He said officials will have to send divers into the water daily to get rid of the debris and clear the grates so the lake can drain naturally. Otherwise it is just going to fill up again.

As of Monday, before the inch of rain that was forecasted, the lake was already within 12 inches of running over the spillway, Long observed. He added that the whole thing already looks like it did before they drained it, so a decision must be made quickly.

Commission spokesman Eric Levis said Monday that the agency is aware of the situation and is taking steps to address it.

Engineers have already examined the site, Levis said, and is taking steps to clear the debris that’s clogging it. He expected the commission would have a diver in the water soon and hopes that will get things cleared out and there won’t be any danger downstream.

Levis added they will know more once the diver goes down and sees what happened and what caused it.

State Sen. Mike Brubaker, who has been actively engaged in efforts to find funding for the lake’s restoration, said he’s been in touch with state and federal authorities about the abrupt rise in water levels this weekend.

Brubaker concludes that since there was no structural improvement to the dam, there is certainly a hazard there. He said he is waiting for engineering reports to assess the level of risk.

The senator said engineers are beginning to calculate what steps to take to ensure there won’t be a dam break, get the lake back down to that fully drained level and come up with a plan to keep what created the high level of water from doing so again. The commission, he noted, is working with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Department of General Services on the project. More SPEEDWELL, page A7

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