WINGATE — An estimated 300 people attended a Wednesday night public hearing about a feasibility study to determine if changes should be made to water release operations at the Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir in Liberty and Howard Townships in Centre County. The hearing, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, was moved from the Howard Elementary School to the auditorium at Bald Eagle Area High School because of the anticipated turnout from residents concerned about alterations to the present water level during the summer recreation season.
Some 30 people spoke during the one hour period set aside for public comment. Virtually all were opposed to any change, as voiced by one member of the public: “Why are you messing with us?” Some said they did not mind the Army Corps taking a look at what might be able to be improved, but by and large, speakers were very suspicious. Comments, for the most part, were made respectfully, but from the very first speaker, a common statement centered on the lack of trust by the community toward the Army Corps and, by association, the SRBC.
Amy Guise with the Army Corps Baltimore District Office opened the meeting. She emphasized “No decision has been made, so your comments matter.” She explained that the purpose of the study was to “take a fresh look” at a system that’s been in place since 1969. She said the Corps, from time to time, looks at existing projects to see if, because of scientific advancements, new research, etc., “we can do it better.” She emphasized that whatever decisions are made, they won’t impact flood control, recreation, or water quality and she said the answer could be that the agencies “do nothing.” She said the study will not recommend reservoir operational changes that: significantly alter the summer pool levels or change the recreational use; that impact flood control; that increase dust, odor, insect problems. What the study will look at, she said, is alternatives to improve the lake and downstream.
The Corps also reviewed what happens next: the public comment period on this study will run until Sept. 15. Cards were handed out on which people were able to make comments and then turn the cards back in. Officials said they would also follow up through the project website and on media postings. The study involves finalizing alternative plans, conducting model simulations, and analyzing alternatives and impacts, after which a draft report will be released for public and agency review. They said they anticipate hosting another public workshop in the spring of next year.
Comments made from the public in attendance centered on the need to reestablish the trust of the community. One person commented, “Your proposal would be another insult to the people of Howard – devastating to our community.” Other comments pertained to concerns about dust, odor, insects and overall health-related matters; concerns for the negative economic impact any changes might have, impacting recreation, tourism, the park overall, the local community, housing, the Howard Fire Company and the Punkin’ Chunkin’ festival, the Howard Fire Company’s key fundraiser.
There were Centre County Commissioners there, Howard officials, Fire Company and other emergency management representatives, tourism representatives and others representing other outdoor recreation interests including fishing, boating, kayaking, etc., residents of Howard, Beech Creek and others from Centre and Clinton Counties. State Rep. Mike Hanna spoke, as did Matt Wise representing Sen. Jake Corman and Mike Glazer for Cong. Glenn Thompson. Hanna, whose district includes the Bald Eagle State Park/dam facility, expressed concern with the process; he asked for the public to have more opportunities to watch the study every step of the way and comment on it, and he also asked who is driving the study and who is paying for it (he and others seemed to feel that there is someone in the background pushing for this. Several remarks from others were made about natural gas interests or the state Fish and Boat Commission. However Amy Guise denied any special interests, saying, “The SRBC and U.S. Army Corps are partners in this study and that’s who’s paying for it. The funding and resources of these two partners are coming together.” She also said she was hearing the distrust issues “loud and clear.” She again emphasized that, “The study is about making something better, not to make something worse. But we want to take the opportunity to look at it, should there be an opportunity for improvement.”
The public may get on the project website and comment: http:www.nab.usace.army.mil/FJSayers_Feasibility_Study/