Buckeye Lake Dam Repair Moving Faster, But Still Too Slow For Some

Nov 16, 2015

Construction equipment sits behind the sign welcoming visitors to Liebs Island at Buckeye Lake State Park.
Credit Karen Kasler

The multi-year project to repair the crumbling dam at Buckeye Lake State Park is moving along quickly – in fact, boats may be able to get back out on the water late next summer. But Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler reports some businesses say it’s not fast enough.

It was a long and unhappy summer for residents and businesses at Buckeye Lake. The water level was deliberately kept shallow as repairs began on the crumbling Buckeye Lake dam, after the Army Corps of Engineers sounded the alarm about the dam’s condition – saying the 180-year-old earthen dam was in danger of structural failure and the lives of the 3,000 people who live in the area could be at risk if it breaches. State officials say they have good news – the addition of a stability berm and a seepage barrier that some thought might take years will actually be done a lot quicker than that. Steven Berezansky, the chief of projects for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said, “Everything’s so weather-dependent. We’re working through harsh climates so what we’re doing is looking at it and saying – reasonable schedule right now is for June.”

Ron Craig (at podium) tells ODNR Director Jim Zehringer he's hoping the gates will be closed in April, not June.
Credit Karen Kasler

That's when Berezansky said the gates can be closed, which will allow rainwater to collect and raise the lake’s water level back to boating levels. That’s an improvement over previous estimates that the water could go back to levels safe for boating in 2017.  But some community leaders are taking the news hard. Ron Craig is the president of the Buckeye Lake Civic Association. He said that June is "too late. What we need is to close the gates sometime in April. We don’t need to have a full pool, but we need to have enough water that we can navigate on a boat on Buckeye Lake.” Craig says closing the gates sooner will help trap melting ice and snow, which he says will raise the water level faster.

State Sen. Jay Hottinger (R-Newark) said he knows businesses are suffering, but they also might be unrealistic. “There’s never been a timetable that they were talking about [closing] the gates in April," Hottinger said. "And so I think the news here has been phenomenally good. I understand everyone wants this done as soon as possible. But we’re on a very aggressive timetable.” ODNR director Jim Zehringer isn’t ruling anything about, but said safety will be the most important factor in deciding whether to open the gates in June – or earlier.  "That would be great. But the levels will not come up or the gate closed until we are instructed by our dam engineers," Zehringer said. "Emotions, timelines – that’s all going to be dependent on what the dam engineers say.”

But Craig said he doesn’t think some businesses can take a summer like they experienced this year, which he describes as "devastating to the businesses. Water is what makes the lake, and if we don’t have the water, people go elsewhere.” But not all businesses said it was that bad. Bob Coleman owns a repair shop for fiberglass boats, and he said this isn’t the worst news he’s heard. "It’s better than it was but it’s not what you want to hear. But it’s going to be that way until it gets done.”

ODNR has already started removing docks on the west bank of the dam.
Credit Karen Kasler

There’s another issue in getting the dam work done – the docks that still remain in the lake. Homeowners were supposed to have removed their docks by November 1, or the state would do it for them. That’s already started on the west bank of the dam, where Ken Reber lives. He’s an engineer, and has been studying the Buckeye Lake dam for 20 years. He feels the project isn’t dealing with a critical problem he says the dam has, and that he deliberately left his dock for the state to demolish. "Now, my dock is old. That dock’s been in there for a long, long time – since the late 1980s." But he also has written a note on his dock as a protest against ODNR. "They’re fixing the wrong thing. They’re spending too much money. It could be done for far less money than what they’ve estimated it to cost," Reber said. "And it’s not ODNR’s money. It’s my money. It’s your money.”

Ken Reber's dock with its protest note.
Credit Karen Kasler

ODNR chief of projects Steven Berezansky says removing the docks won’t slow down construction: "If they’re there, we’re going to take them out.” The Buckeye Lake dam repair project is estimated to cost around $110 million and is expected to be completed in 2019.