Buckeye Lake, Ohio — The chance of a catastrophic dam failure is so high at a central Ohio lake that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recommended the popular recreational reservoir be drained until repairs can be made.
The Corps was brought in by the Ohio DNR to assess the safety of the dam at Buckeye Lake, about 30 miles east of Columbus. The agency recommended that the lake be drained or the 180-year-old dam be replaced immediately to prevent potential failure.
The report said a dam failure could endanger the lives of 3,000 people who live and work near the lake.
The state says it will keep the nearly five-square-mile lake at lower winter levels until it can evaluate the report. That could have huge consequences because most boating wouldn’t be possible with reduced water levels, causing a ripple effect on tourism at the marinas, bars, restaurants, and other shops in the surrounding villages of Buckeye Lake, Thornville, and Millersport.
The report from the federal agency said the structural integrity of the 4.1-mile earthen dam on the north side of the lake has been “significantly” weakened by the more than 370 homes and other structures that have been sunk into it.
Portions of the dam have been dug away to accommodate pools and patios, as well as utilities and drainage systems for the structures built into it, the report said. Signs of weakness are evident, such as significant seepage, persistent wet areas, and structural deterioration.
A catastrophic dam failure could inundate areas as far as two miles downstream, including a section of Interstate 70.
The 128 page summary, released March 14, found serious problems that could lead to significant risk for the public.
The report by the USACE evaluated the structural integrity of the 170 year old, 4.1 mile long dam. Citing the following “unprecedented” manmade defects, the report identifies several factors that have led to this situation:
1) The structural integrity of the dam has been significantly weakened by the more than 370 homes and other structures that have been sunk into the 4.1 mile earthen dam embankment.
2) Portions of the dam have been dug away to accommodate pools and patios, utilities, and drainage systems for the structures that are built into the dam. All of this has weakened the dam and undermined its stability, increasing the likelihood that it will no longer be strong enough to hold back the weight of the water behind it.
3) Cracks, depressions, and trees that have taken root in the dam have adversely affected the dam’s structural integrity and increased the potential for failure.
4) Tell-tale signs of critical weaknesses have been observed on the dam, such as significant seepage, subsidence, persistent wet areas, and structural deterioration, including recent observations by USACE engineers of new weaknesses.
5) The combined impact of these defects – none of which would be permitted for any new dam construction in America today as they violate acceptable dam construction standards – pose serious stability-related risks.
At the recommendation of USACE, the DNR is currently leaving the gates of the dam open thus keeping Buckeye Lake at its winter level. Traditionally, the gates are closed every year on March 1, thus allowing the lake to gradually reach its normal summer level. This decision was based on four highlights from the USACE summary as follows:
1) The likelihood of a catastrophic failure of the Buckeye Lake dam at normal pool level and above is high.
2) A failure of the dam would include significant economic damages and probably loss of life.
3) Immediate steps to reduce the risk must be taken.
4) Alternative long-term risk reduction measures include building a new dam or draining the lake.
“The safety of the more than 3,000 people potentially affected in the inundation zone is our top priority,” said DNR Director James Zehringer.
He further explained that the ODNR will begin work immediately with emergency and first responders to develop response plans and ensure public safety.
“Our technical experts are reviewing the Corps’ findings, and we hope to have a decision for our way forward in the next couple of weeks. After we review the study, we will put together a plan for a long term strategy. We would like to hear ideas from the public, and we’ve found open houses to be very successful,” said Zehringer.
Two local businesses affected by keeping Buckeye Lake at winter pool are Vance Outdoors in Hebron and Boat Boys with stores in Newark and Buckeye Lake. Vance Outdoors hosts one of Central Ohio’s most popular bass tournaments in early April at Buckeye Lake. With a top prize of $4,000, the lucrative event consistently draws 75-100 two man teams vying for the top spot. Store manager Larry Uhl says the current situation at Buckeye has this year’s April 4 tournament in doubt. In addition to the Vance Outdoors Open, Buckeye Lake’s park office has issued 75 special event permits. Most of these permits are for bass tournaments.
“At this time, we are weighing our options as whether to cancel or move the tournament to another location,” Uhl told Ohio Outdoor News. “I am going to be making some phone calls in the next few days to the participants who are already signed up. I will see what their thoughts are before we make a decision.”
Boat Boys managing partner Tim Figgins has much more at stake than a one-day bass tournament. His business success is tied to a Buckeye Lake at normal summer level, as are over 70 other businesses in the community. It is not just business that concerns Figgins, it is the way of life that area residents have forged for themselves and their families.
“We are concerned about the citizens of our communities. We are neighbors, colleagues, friends, brothers, and sisters in our love for being on the water. We are open to the idea that the dam needs updated.
We are open to the idea it needs replaced altogether,” said Figgins.
However, he expressed his disappointment in the ODNR for not upgrading West Bank with sheet pile walls and more backfill and his disagreement with the facts as presented in the USACE report.
Bob Mathie has run Bob’s Outdoor Supply in Newark for the past 23 years. Mathie said his hunting and fishing shop stands to lose about a quarter of its business due to problems at the dam.
“I saw somewhere where it’s going to take them 12 to 18 months to figure out what to do once they got this report,” Mathie said of the DNR. “That’s totally asinine.”
“At 4.1 miles (the length of the dam), it’s going to be expensive, but what are you going to do,” Mathie said.
Mathie figures the situation will hit him in the wallet fairly hard.
“I’ve got a lot of pleasure fishermen (customers), but I’ve also got a lot of bass fishermen that fish this lake religiously,” he said. “They’re not going to be buying anything. They’re not going to buy a new rod and reel for a lake they can’t fish. It’s not going to do me any good.”
Mathie blames the state for letting the situation become what it is.
“You’ve got these guys who want to stand around and beat on their chest and huff and puff,” he said. “They make noise, but they don’t want to do anything … The state’s going to have to belly up and foot the bill.”
The USACE lists several immediate steps to reduce the risk of dam failure. Keeping the lake at winter pool is imperative to reduce stress on the dam. Building structures of any kind into the dam should not be permitted. Their final suggestions include stockpiling sandbags and enacting an emergency response plan.
If the DNR chooses to replace the dam, work should begin immediately to mitigate the real and current risks, the Corps recommends.
Real estate agents say buyer interest in the area has been previously robust, but warn it will be more difficult to sell a house on a lake without the water, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Real estate agent Marnita Swickard said she spent most of last week trying to calm panicked sellers.
Community members are also worried about the impact that decreasing home values would have on public services.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Editor Mike Moore also contributed to the report.