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Save the lake Effort underway to refill Speedwell, but it could take years
By: LAURIE KNOWLES CALLANAN Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer
When it comes to Speedwell Forge Lake, the words, "You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone" seem appropriate.
Just a few weeks ago, the 160-acre man-made Speedwell Forge Lake was filled with bass, bluegills, crappies and sunfish. Frogs, ducks, geese, swans, blue herons and even a pair of eagles were thriving in the habitat. Canoes and kayaks lined the shore, and fishermen and hikers relaxed amid the natural beauty of this attraction.
Today, Speedwell Forge is no longer a picturesque lake framed by autumn trees and rolling farmland. It’s a large muddy "hole" filled with dead fish, frogs and other wildlife.
Despite the loss, people around here seem to know what they had, and they want to bring it back.
A local angler, Andrea Becker, started a Facebook page "Save Speedwell" that already has more than 1,300 supporters. The Lititz Sportsman’s Association is making the lake restoration a priority. And local officials who have grown up enjoying the lake are unified in trying to return it to its former glory.
"It was the first place where I was ever on a boat when I was a small child," said State Senator Mike Brubaker. "I went with my father and my brother on a small rowboat and we did some fishing. So I have very fond memories of the lake. Later, I spent time fishing on the lake and hiking the trails. So Speedwell holds very special memories for me personally."
As Brubaker noted, the lake was being drained for public safety, because the dam is damaged and could risk flooding properties along Hammer Creek.
"It is a fiscal issue. There simply isn’t money available. The cost to repair the dam is more than $6 million," he noted.
He was also quick to add that he is "100 percent committed to finding a way to restore the lake." It means that much to him. And most of all, he is receiving daily contact from his constituents who are concerned about saving Speedwell Forge.
Within the next few weeks, Brubaker plans to hold a public meeting to discuss how the public can effectively work to save it. Raising money, seeking grants, obtaining government and local funding are a few options that might give the lake a new lease on life.
According to Eric Levis of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, this is not a problem or situation that is unique to Lancaster County. Across the state there are some 16 dams that are at risk of failing, which could be disastrous for nearby homes and properties.
"There simply isn’t money," he said.
What many people don’t realize is that the Fish & Boat Commission is not funded by tax dollars. All funding comes from fishing licenses, boat licenses and fines. It just isn’t enough to rebuild the dam at Speedwell Forge Lake, or anywhere else.
Still, Levis doesn’t consider it a lost cause, and the commission appreciates the effort being made by the Save Speedwell campaign.
"In order to rebuild these dams and bring these recreational facilities back, we need as much support as we can get," he said.
There have been successes based on community support. Campaigns to save lakes, such as Possum Lake in Cumberland County and Leaser Lake in Lehigh County, were successful due to community involvement.
"It might not be possible for fundraising alone to secure all the funds, but community support could lead state, county and local government officials to step up and help secure the rest," said Levis.
In some cases, local companies have volunteered services, such as cement work, to facilitate repairs. And there may be grants or other funding opportunities with the backing of the community.
Officials at Elizabeth Township hope something can be done. Township secretary Rita Snavely drove past the drained lake in disbelief the other day.
"It’s sad," she said.
Elizabeth Township supervisor Rodney May agrees, but he knows better than most why the lake had to be drained. Inspections of the dam in recent years had shown cracks and stress areas. After the heavy rains and flooding from Tropical Storm Lee in September, the cracks had intensified and a huge slab of concrete had moved.
"One more heavy storm could cause the dam to fail and risk lives and property downstream," he said. "They had to do it."
Still, May hopes that something can be done to fix the dam and restore the lake. He grew up here and remembers when the lake first opened.
"It was a beautiful spot here in Elizabeth Township. not so much anymore," he said, referring to the muddy imprint that now exists.
In its prime, it looked very much like a natural lake that had been there for centuries. In reality, it was a relatively new landmark. Speedwell Forge was a man-made lake created in 1966 after the state acquired the property in 1963. The state constructed a dam at the southern end of the swamp lands, flooded the swamp area and created a recreation attraction that to many seemed as if it had always been there. It quickly became a haven for kayaking, canoeing, fishing and hiking.
The Lititz Sportsman’s Association was instrumental in getting the lake started. The picnic pavilion off Lake View Drive is dedicated to a past president Bob Buch, an avid sportsmen. The club will hold a discussion at their next meeting on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Lititz American Legion. The public is encouraged to attend.
"We want to explore ways to save the lake, find out what can be done," said club president Phil McCloud. "The association’s efforts to bring the Speedwell Forge Lake to completion in the 1960s paid off, with the lake becoming an outdoor treasure."
At the upcoming public meeting, the association will plan ways to assist and bring about the restoration of the lake. All members or non-members are urged to attend.
Overlooking Speedwell Forge, the Swiss Woods Inn has long made the beauty of the lake a selling point for the peaceful bed & breakfast, with its flocks of snowbirds and whistling swans that migrate through the area.
Now that Speedwell Forge is no longer a lake, but a muddy scar, Debbie and Wilhelm Mosimann of Swiss Woods are not pleased to see the natural attraction vanish from the nearby landscape.
"Our guests love to hike the trail along the lake. And they post pictures to our website, many of them taken at the lake. It is very sad for everyone to lose the lake," said Debbie, who hopes something can be done "sooner rather than later."
Becker, who started the Facebook campaign, is impressed with the support. She just needs to figure out how to channel it into an effective way to save Speedwell Forge Lake.
"I had to do something," said Becker, of Manheim, who has been fishing since she was three years old.
She recently noticed that the water level at Speedwell seemed to be lower, and she was shocked and saddened to hear that the lake was being drained. She visited the area over the weekend and said, "I felt sick. It’s terrible."
So, she did what seemed natural in today’s social media world. She started a Facebook page. Within 24 hours, she had 500 supporters. On Monday, that number had climbed to 1,325.
Now she and the growing number of Facebook fans have to figure out what, if anything, can really be done to save Speedwell Forge Lake.
"The goal of the Facebook page is to organize everyone who is interested in helping. We accomplished that in less than seven days, so this cause is near and dear to the hearts of many people," said Becker.
She added, "This is an issue of quality of life, as this was a wonderful place that people of all ages and backgrounds could find a safe, healthy, legal and cost-effective escape from their everyday lives."
Becker is also concerned about the ecosystem of the lake, with its fish, turtles, water birds and eagles. It is also one of only six night heron colonies in Pennsylvania. She spoke with a member of Lancaster County Bassmasters, which recently completed work on an underwater structure to encourage bass breeding. Now the bass are relocated to other streams or lying dead in what was once a lake.
"Most of the support to get this project done will need to come from legislators. We can’t raise $6.4 million through bake sales," she said. "We need help."
The Save Speedwell movement is looking to become a 501(c)3 non-profit, which would allow them to accept funds for the project. They hope to accomplish that status so they can establish a secure and responsible process for handling donations.
"Our goal is to ensure that the lake receives funding, and get the lake restored as soon as possible," said Becker. "Based on other projects, this could take up to 10 years, but we are hoping that people see the value in Speedwell, support us and help expedite this process for the benefit of everyone in the community."
To find out more about the Facebook campaign, check facebook.com/savespeedwell. What can you do?
? Attend public meeting at Lititz American Legion, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m.
? Join the "Save Speedwell" campaign on Facebook More SPEEDWELL, page A17