|Part III – Wild Trout, the Prize of the Lehigh|
The two previous articles in this three-part series discussed recreational opportunities available along the Lehigh River, the struggling wild trout fishery, and what is being done to investigate proposed changes to the Francis E. Walter Reservoir to improve both the fishery and recreation.
The last article discussed how the Army Corps of Engineers is performing a study co-sponsored by the PA Fish and Boat Commission and the PA Department of Conservation Natural Resources. The study is entitled Temperature and Flow Model of F.E. Walter Reservoir and the Lehigh River, and is also known as the Coldwater Study. The most important purpose of the study is to determine how to conserve the cold water in FEW and save it to be release during the warm weather months. Conserving cold water and releasing it when it's needed in the summer will greatly benefit the trout fishery in the Lehigh River below FEW.
Specifically, the study is looking at what might happen if more water, up to almost 12 billion gallons, is stored in FEW. Currently, only 6 billion gallons of water is stored for summer recreation. Typically, the lake is held at its conservation pool (normal) storage level of 0.5 billion gallons. If the reservoir were completely filled, it could hold 35 billion gallons of water; however, that would result in no flood control capability.
It should be noted that FEW has never reached full capacity during flood control operations. In addition, the study is looking at what could be done if the control tower that discharges the water were to be modified or replaced to provide the ability to selectively release water from more than one depth in the lake. Currently, the water can only be released off the bottom of the lake. This type of tower would enable the Corps greater control of the temperature of the water being released from the lake.
With more water stored in the lake, making it deeper and creating a larger pool of cold water below 68°F, combined with a control tower that could regulate the water temperature being discharged, it's hardly likely that the coldest water would not be conserved and held in the lake to be discharged during the hottest summer months of July and August. Results of the Study should be out this year.
This is just one step in the process of improving the wild trout fishery. The Corps will still need to do follow-up studies, get reauthorization from federal legislators, and then construct a new tower. All this will require time and money. A new tower may cost more than $50 million dollars. However, considering government standards, the money required is a drop in the bucket. The return on the government's investment to implement the changes at FEW could be paid off in a matter of a few years through revenue gained to the region. What makes this even better is that all this revenue can't be outsourced and will stay within the USA.
What would be the return on investment? Most of the best trout fisheries in the United States are downstream of large reservoirs such as the White River in Arkansas, Snake River in Idaho and Wyoming, the Big Horn in Montana, and the Upper Delaware River in New York and along the Pennsylvania border. These reservoirs release year-round water with temperatures favorable for exceptional trout survival and growth.
As a result, trout grow big and are typically found in greater numbers than in most trout streams in Pennsylvania. Dr. Robert Bachman, a PFBC Commissioner, believes "The Lehigh River could rival some of the best tailwater fisheries in the East, if not the United States." Tailwater fisheries (below large reservoirs) attract trout enthusiasts. Trout anglers travel many miles and spend big bucks in hopes of catching a large trout—which some consider the catch of a lifetime. By keeping river temperatures cooler and enhancing the Lehigh River's trout fishery, tourism dollars will be generated in the local economy. Anglers that flock to these fisheries spend money on fishing licenses, food, gas, lodging, etc. These add up and help provide a better quality of life for local residents and businesses.
How much money are we talking about? The White River in Arkansas is estimated to contribute approximately $85 million dollars annually to the local economy. The Snake River in Wyoming generates $52 million and the Upper Delaware in NY generates an estimated $60 million dollars annually. Combine this with a thriving whitewater recreation destination that generates almost $50 million annually, and the Lehigh River has the possibility of becoming a premier trout fishing and whitewater destination. Combine this great recreational opportunity with flood control operations that since 1960 have prevented $172 million in damages to the sub-basin, and there is one exceptional opportunity awaiting this reservoir.
This is all possible because anglers will come to the Lehigh River in pursuit of catching large, wild trout when most fisheries are in their doldrums during the midsummer months.
The Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance has been the driving force behind these changes. Please visit their website for more information. This organization, along with individual angler support and support from local angling groups like Trout Unlimited, has been largely responsible for pushing these changes. Your support is greatly appreciated.
As they said in the 1989 baseball movie Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come."