COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Gov. John Kasich said Thursday 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, he 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 this 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 Department of Natural Resources will try to expedite work on a new dam, potentially starting the initial steps of the bidding processes as soon as next 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, involving several villages and townships.
The situation has left local residents scared, Fairfield County Commissioner Steve Davis said, with “fear of the lake being there, and fear of the lake not being there.”
“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.”
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