WILCOX, Pa. — After seven years of construction at the dam of East Branch Clarion River Lake, and more than a decade of lowered water levels, the reservoir and dam will reopen in late May with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and an open house event.
The dam repairs addressed a “bus-sized” hole in the dam that had caused the lake to seep water since the 1950s.
“The water levels are going to be the highest they’ve been in decades,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Butler, deputy commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. “The federal government is investing in this community, and the benefits of that investment will be seen for years to come.”
The corps lowered the lake’s water level by 20 feet in 2008 when they identified that the dam needed repairs. If the dam had collapsed, it would have devastated more than 6,200 residents in towns downstream, such as Johnsonburg and Ridgway, in less than two hours.
The dam was first built in 1952, but in 1957 a school-bus-sized void was discovered in the earthen dam. Some repairs took place in the years that followed, but the most recent construction projects at East Branch began in 2014.
“It will be a relief for the people that live in the area (to finally reopen),” said Elaine Lisk, the district’s chief of staff who is overseeing plans for the upcoming ceremony and open house.
Lisk, along with other members of Pittsburgh District’s team visited the East Branch recently to prepare for the ceremony.
“This was one massive construction … It might seem like a simple concept with just water and earth and concrete, but there’s a lot of science and engineering that goes on behind the scenes, making those all work together to provide a safe and controlled flood-risk protection,” Lisk said.
As a result of construction, the park’s campgrounds had closed, the boating seasons shortened, and other boating activities limited. Fishing remained open on the lake, but the ramp near the dam closed off during much of the project. Elk State Park is another local attraction and the home to local elk herds that bring visitors during their bugling season and some hunting.
“It’s going to be a very popular site after we reopen,” said Evan Skornick, northern area operations manager for Pittsburgh District. “People are really excited about the water level coming back up and allowing for full recreation … and camp in this campground.”
Pittsburgh District will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house on May 27. The open house will include information stations about the repairs and provide historical information about the reservoir.
Repairs that began in 2014 required massive amounts of coordination among engineers, safety professionals, construction experts and administrators, plus daily monitoring to ensure water levels, temperatures and purity were all in good order throughout.
The towns closest to the dam -- Kane, Ridgeway and Wilcox -- are expected to benefit the most from the lake and parks reopening, said one corps resource manager.
“They have become really nice little towns over the years, and this will help the area even more, with new breweries, restaurants and shops bringing in more people,” said Autumn Rodden, resource manager and supervisor at East Branch Lake.
Rodden has been working for the district for 13 years, but five years ago decided to move to this area specifically because it has the best water quality in the region, she said.
“Hopefully this lake will be something the community can enjoy for a long time … We put our hearts and souls into it. We really do care about this place in the community. I’m excited to welcome people back in,” Rodden said.