WILCOX, Pa. — With the snip of three large scissors, 14 years of waiting finally ended for the residents of Elk County, Pennsylvania.
“Can I have a piece of that ribbon?” asked Ned Jacob after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, marking the reopening of the East Branch Clarion River Lake and the completion of the dam’s safety modification project.
At the age of 78, Jacob has lived in the region longer than the dam has been around, which was originally built in 1952.
Jacob owns a summer home by the water, and he plans on keeping the piece of ribbon as a memento with the ceremony’s date, May 27, 2021. He will display the ribbon next to a picture of the ceremony.
“Me and my wife bought this camp back here on the lake over 30 years ago. This is just a momentous occasion, you know, because she always wanted to see this lake filled back up, and she didn't make it,” Jacob said of Katie, who passed away after 49 years of marriage.
Now that the dam’s repair construction is complete, water levels on the lake can return to normal, with a summer pool expected to reach 1670 feet above sea level. On the day of the ceremony, the water was 10 feet shy of that goal, which will continue to rise with upcoming rain.
“Three weeks ago we had snow, and now we have one of the most beautiful days. This day is a postcard, right? God is good too because … look at this beautiful sunshine today, and rain tomorrow. So [the rain will] continue to fill this thing up, which is all good,” said U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson during the ceremony.
Since 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District had to lower the reservoir’s water level by 20 feet to relieve pressure on the dam infrastructure and keep the community safe.
From the overlook, the earthen dam may not look like much. On the surface, it appears as single road spanning across a mound of dirt, with grass sloping down on one side and a pile of boulders facing the lake on the other side. Yet, what the eyes can’t see is the years of construction, which includes a concrete wall deep into the dam. In 2014, construction began, using massive machinery to dig into the earth and install 149 concrete panels in the bedrock. In some areas, the cutoff wall is up to 250 feet deep.
“This morning, I learned if you took a football field and went 29 feet high, that's the amount of concrete that you would see underneath the dam,” said Col. Andrew Short, the commander of the Pittsburgh District. “Encased inside that earth is a $250 million engineering marvel. We're very proud to be able to ensure that this reservoir remains safe and vibrant for decades to come.”
Throughout construction, the dam and the reservoir continued their primary mission of flood risk damage reduction. During the 1972 Agnes Flood alone, the East Branch Dam prevented more than $139 million in damage to communities downstream.
Since its completion in 1952, East Branch Dam has prevented flood damages estimate estimated to be more than $456 million.
“[Nearly] a half a billion dollars in damages that were prevented because of this infrastructure,” said Thompson. “Water is a blessing. God's good with it. It can be a curse, though, obviously and these flood mitigation dams that have multiple purposes, but starting with safety is so important. So we're here to celebrate today the confidence that we have in the East Branch Dam.”
Lowering the water, meant the community lost the use of a beloved resource. Now, the lake is returning to pre-construction levels and the community will have its lake back, stronger and safer than ever before.
“First and foremost, [this helps] the quality of life, for the boating, the recreation, hiking the camping, and also brings people into our area to camp here and spend tourist dollar, and maybe move here because we have jobs here,” said Gennaro Aiello, who is a long-time resident and the former president of Ridgeway Elk County Chamber of Commerce.
Aiello had been looking forward to this day for years and said he’s appreciative of the work the Pittsburgh District did here.
“The Corps of Engineers has done a good job. This took a little bit longer than everybody would have liked, but it was done right,” he said.
The beautiful lake and its outflow boast pristine water quality, support an excellent fishery, and offer many recreational opportunities for the area, including a campground that reopened for Memorial Day weekend, said Autumn Rodden, the resource manager for East Branch.
“For many of us the completion of this project, the raising of the lake level and the reopening of our recreation areas resemble the budding warm relief of the spring after a long, hard winter. It may feel as though it's been winter around here for quite some time. But I'm here today to assure you that spring has finally arrived,” said Rodden.