Columbus — Gov. John Kasich said that Ohio will replace a faulty earthen dam at Buckeye Lake and keep the water level low for now, despite local concerns about the economic impact of not filling the popular recreational reservoir where boating brings tourism and business.
Kasich said that the water level of the central Ohio lake isn’t up for debate and that the state’s actions are focused on protecting lives and property. The lake, about 30 miles east of Columbus, is being kept at winter pool of about 3 feet, roughly half the typical summer depth.
“I think this is the responsible way to go about it,” Kasich said. “But there’s no question that this poses hardships on people – small businesses, people that have docks. … It’s understandable that they would be upset.”
The project will take several years and cost an estimated $125 million to $150 million, probably funded through capital budget requests to lawmakers, Kasich said.
The nearly 180-year-old dam has been weakened by several hundred homes and other structures built into it over a century, along with docks, trees, and utility lines. The state asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the condition of the 4.1-mile dam, and the resulting report released last month concluded there is a high risk of a catastrophic failure that could endanger 3,000 people.
Weaknesses in the dam have been known for years and should have been addressed decades ago, Kasich said, adding that fortunately the lake has dodged disaster so far.
“We just cannot afford to look the other way anymore,” he said.
Retiree Jim Fedor, who lives along the lake’s east end, had mixed feelings about Kasich’s announcement.
“I’m glad he’s fixing the dam,” Fedor said. “I just wish he would maybe make the (water) level up a little bit more to preserve all these businesses.”
He said many boats can't navigate the current level, and his own, a 24-foot pontoon, will remain at a local marina as long as the water is at winter pool. Then, he said, a thought struck him: What if the marina goes out of business?
Only time will tell.
State officials said the DNR will try to expedite work on a new dam, potentially starting the initial steps of the bidding processes as soon as this week.
Meanwhile, some House members are forming a caucus to organize advocacy efforts related to the lake and the area, and emergency management officials plan exercises to review how they’d respond if the dam fails. Coordinating among the affected local governments is complicated because the lake sits at the juncture of Fairfield, Licking, and Perry counties.
The situation has left local residents scared, Fairfield County Commissioner Steve Davis said.
“You’ve got a fair number of people who are afraid now that the Corps has said that their lives are at risk, and you have a fair number of people who are afraid for their businesses and their way of life if the lake weren’t there,” Davis said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
Local public safety officials and several state agency directors were among about 50 people who gathered recently in Columbus to discuss the faulty dam.
State officials suggested that safety must be prioritized, and they noted that a dam failure could occur without warning.
“To anticipate that we’ll be able to stop the failure from happening is good planning, and certainly something we should be addressing,” said Evan Schuman, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. “But good emergency management planning is: If we can’t stop it, how do we minimize the risk to the population?”
To answer that, Schuman said the agency will arrange exercises this spring where local and state agencies and others can discuss response and recovery plans and work out any trouble spots.
At the local level, officials are encouraging residents to sign up for mobile alert systems that can be used to notify people if evacuations are necessary, said Sean Grady, who directs the Licking County Emergency Management Agency.
Steve DeBruin, who owns Feeder Creek Veterinary Services in Millersport, told officials that lowering the lake for the summer would threaten the survival of many small businesses.
Others raised the issue of property values. Among them was John Johanssen, who told officials that owners would benefit from clearer documentation of the situation – something to show banks if they seek refinancing, the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette reported.
“Some declarative, affirmative statement that that dam is going to be fixed would go a long way in restoring the faith of the community and help us as we go forward with our property values,” Johanssen said.
Some at the meeting said they want the state to act immediately.
“We understand how vital this lake is to the families and businesses in the area, so we will put in motion the processes necessary to build this dam,” said DNR Director James Zehringer. “These are complex structures, and with lives and livelihoods at stake, putting off tough decisions only creates additional problems in the future.”
In the wake of lower lake levels, several fishing tournaments planned for the early spring on Buckeye Lake have either been canceled or moved elsewhere.
• Team Bass Xtreme annual Buckeye Lake Open scheduled for Saturday, April 11 is cancelled.
• Team Bass Xtreme Elite Series event for April is being moved to another lake not yet determined.
• Team Bass Xtreme Central Division event for April 19 at Buckeye has been move to Rocky Fork Lake in Highland County.
“I can’t ask anyone to put their boat on Buckeye Lake under the current circumstances,” said Phil Carver, president of Team Bass Xtreme.
Contributing Writer Doug Clifford contributed to this report.