Refilled Somerset Lake expected to be better than ever

Brian Whipkey
Pennsylvania Outdoors Columnist

Somerset Lake is finally filling up.

About 5,000 golden shiner minnows were stocked Friday morning in Somerset Lake to celebrate the completion of the rehabilitated waterway.

State and local agencies gathered at the lake in the heart of Somerset County to commemorate the completion of the new areas and spillway.

“It’s a really good day in Somerset County,” Tim Schaeffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said. The agency owns and manages the lake.

Officials and children stocked about 5,000 golden shiner minnows Friday in Somerset Lake to commemorate the completion of the new breast and spillway. From left, are Sen. Pat Stefano, Junie Wismer, 4, and her grandfather Daniel Wismer of Friedens and Jordan Steele, 10, of Somerset.

Over the past 10 years many partnering agencies, groups, businesses and volunteers worked together on restoring the waterway. “To say it's a partnership is really an understatement,” Schaeffer said about the countless people who were involved.

“The fishing at Somerset Lake is going to be better than ever,” Schaeffer said. He explained there will be a new lake effect where all the vegetation that has grown in the lake bed over the years as well as all the man-made vegetation will provide the right environment for fish to grow and thrive.

Tim Schaeffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, talks Friday morning about the wooden habitat structures that are now placed in Somerset Lake for fish. Behind him, from left, are Gary Smith, fisheries biologist, Ben Page, lake habitat section chief, Don Anderson, PFBC commissioner, Jim Moses from Somerset Lake Action Committee, and Gerald Walker, Somerset County commissioner.

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The 253-acre lake was drained in the fall of 2017 to begin the construction project. After five years and close to $8 million in renovations, fish are now swimming again in the waterway.

The refilling process started on May 23 and, depending on rainfall, it could be full by the end of summer or early fall. 

It was a project 10 years in the making. The lake was lowered 6 feet in 2012 after it was determined water was seeping under the breast and it was considered to be a high-hazard dam.

Gary Smith, area fisheries manager, said the stocking will be done in phases to allow the forage fish to develop.

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Earlier in the week, walleye fingerling-size fish were placed in the waterway. “It will have a diverse fishery,” Smith said about having walleye, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, muskellunge, catfish and forage fish.

He said the multi-year process will build a food chain that results in a self-sustaining, reproducing population. The waterway is temporarily a catch-and-release waterway to allow the population to grow.

Paul Urbanik, Fish and Boat Commission director of engineering, said the lake's water level will be similar to its historical levels. “We didn’t change the actual (water) elevation at all,” he said about the new breast and spillway. The breast spans about 1,500 feet long and is about 27 feet high.

Paul Urbanik, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission director of engineering, stands Friday at the side of the new spillway for Somerset Lake.

“It was really close to what we were estimating,” he said about the final cost of the roughly $8 million project that includes a labyrinth-designed spillway. “The biggest problem was COVID. They started construction right before COVID hit. It definitely complicated things. I give the contractor (Thomas Construction of Grove City) credit. He was able to adapt to all the changes, overcome and get it completed.”

Don Anderson, local Fish and Boat Commissioner, said, “This is a prime example of what we can accomplish when so many people work together.” He pointed out that several schools are even helping with building fish habitat structures and operating indoor catfish nurseries. “It’s important we have the youth involved in conservation.”

Len Lichvar remembers being the volunteer Fish and Boat commissioner for District 4 when the agency realized in 2011 the lake would need to be drained and money would be needed to fund the improvements. He was out of the state during Friday's event but recalled the early days of the project in a telephone interview.

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About 10 years ago he met with local representatives and explained the dire situation of the waterway. The Somerset County Conservancy, Lichvar and a few volunteers formed the Somerset Lake Action Committee. 

John Arway, the director of the Fish and Boat Commission at the time, challenged the community to raise about $100,000 to show the local support to fund the lake. 

The volunteers held several fundraisers like Give a Dam concerts, educational LakeFest events, a Somerset County Chamber banquet and an online telethon.

The county commissioners stepped up and leased the state-owned land around the lake to start a park with pavilions, trails and other similar amenities.

The SLAC volunteers worked with the Fish and Boat Commission and local schools to build wooden and concrete fish habitat structures that have been strategically placed on the lake’s floor.

“The ability to have that park and do things that never would have been done under Fish and Boat management alone can unlock all those other additional amenities that will make Somerset Lake more user-friendly and add to the recreational component that it never had in its previous life,” Lichvar said.

The Somerset Conservation District and Somerset Township improved Wood Duck Road along the lake through its Dirt and Gravel Road Program that reduces sediment runoff into waterways.

In thinking about all the efforts ofthe local volunteers and various agencies, Lichvar is pleased with the outcome. “The future is brighter than the past as far as that lake is concerned.”

The park, trails and improved waterway will create a better family attraction for families and local economy. It will become a destination point,” Lichvar said about recreational opportunities.

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Jeff Payne, volunteer president of the Somerset County Conservancy and chairman of  SLAC, has been involved in lake effort since the begining. “Our job was to rally support,” he said in a telephone interview about educating the public about the needs for the lake and lobbying with legislators. He also was out of state Friday and could not attend the ceremony.

“So many people were fantastic,” he said about businesses, civic organizations and residents making donations and various contributions like the boat launch and materials for fish habitat structures.

“It’s really exciting we finally got there. I don’t think any else thought back in 2013 it would be nine years,” Payne said. “I think the lake is going to be a tremendous resource. I think it’s going to be a super lake.”

In addition to the fishing and boating, he said the waterway is a great place for birders. He knows one birder documented 242 bird species in 2012 including osprey, eagles and a variety of migratory waterfowl. “In the spring there can be thousands of ducks out there,” he said.

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As far at the future, Payne hopes the park project can further proceed with its development plans and trails.

“Somerset County is very fortunate to have something that close that was basically given to them,” he said about the state lease agreement and wanting to see the park developed into its full potential.

Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.