Two down and four to go. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has been taking down dams on the Cuyahoga River. The goal is to improve water quality and upgrade habitat for fish and other wildlife. But communities are discovering there are other benefits as well, from economic development to eco-tourism. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
Last year, the citizens of Kent celebrated the re-routing of the Cuyahoga River around the historic Kent Dam. This year work will be completed on the removal of a second dam a few miles downstream in Monroe Falls. For the first time in nearly 200 years, a 12-mile section of the middle Cuyahoga will run free.
For Steve Tuckerman, removal of the dams has been a remarkable success story. Tuckerman is a water expert with 27 years at the Ohio EPA.
Steve Tuckerman: We did our fish surveys between here and the dam back in the '80's and early '90's and we found a fair to poor fish community. And then after the dam was re-routed around we came back and found it was completely meeting our warm water habitat criteria. We catch lots of northern pike and smallmouth bass. It's amazing how quickly the fish are responding.
Tuckerman and his partner Ohio EPA environmental scientist Bill Zawiski are out on a rainy winter morning visiting the sites where Cuyahoga dams have already come down or may come down in the future.
Steve Tuckerman: Right now we're standing in downtown Kent and we're looking upstream where the former dam pool used to be. Before the project started the water here was fairly stagnant, especially during the summer. We'd often have dissolved oxygen problems, the water would even start to smell a little bit. The fish population was almost non-existent, just a few very hardy fish types here and basically it was not meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act.
Tuckerman says the EPA added dam removal to its arsenal of water quality improvement tools back in the 1980's. But he says the agency has no authority to order dam owners to tear them down. So about five years ago he and Bill Zawiski began talking with officials in the city of Kent, which owns the Kent Dam, about the benefits of removing it. Bob Brown, director of wastewater treatment, says that's when they ran into a snag - the dam is protected by federal law.
Bob Brown: The project started off as an environmental project, but we soon found out that the National Historic Preservation Act was going to play a big role, because of the 160-year-old Kent Dam.
And there began a series of public meetings to come up with a solution to letting the river run unobstructed while still preserving the dam. Brown says there were times he wasn't sure the project would be able to move ahead.
Bob Brown: I think over time people became more comfortable with the project, especially after they saw it get under construction. Everybody started feeling good about it and saying, this looks really nice. I think any day you go down there and see the visitors that are occupying the area now, it's definitely been a major improvement to the downtown area.
Today, the Kent Dam project is a public park, with boardwalks and signs that explain the re-routing of the river and the history of the old dam. In fact, the $3.8 million project has become a model for other communities to follow. A few miles downstream, the city of Monroe Falls was initially thinking about just lowering their old dam. But after seeing what happened in Kent, Ohio EPA's Bill Zawiski says they decided to go all the way.
Bill Zawiski: One of the differences between this and Kent, this really opened up, so there was a floodplain here. Part of this project is actually restoring the stream bank.
Zawiski says the city of Monroe Falls is planning to build an outdoor amphitheater by the edge of the river where the dam once stood. And he says boaters will be able to take advantage of a much longer stretch of free-flowing river.
Bill Zawiski: You can go from Lake Rockwell, go through Kent, go around here, and then pull out at the first dam in Cuyahoga Falls.
Canoers and kayakers are using the river more. At the Lefever Dam in Cuyahoga Falls, two local college students are preparing to kayak through the narrow gorge of the river that runs through the middle of town.
Student: There's two dams we have to portage around. We can't put in as high as we'd like and there's another third dam that plays a role in our kayaking.
In this two-mile stretch of the Cuyahoga the river drops about 200 feet, creating some of the best white water in the state. But the 60-foot Edison Dam in Cuyahoga Falls is a major barrier that's not likely to come down soon. A proposal to build a small hydroelectric plant there could tie up the dam for another fifty years. James White, River Navigator for the US EPA's American Heritage Rivers program, says removing dams on the Cuyahoga is not a magic bullet.
James White: There's still the burden of timely and costly investment that the sewer districts must make. So by removing the dams, we're not going to have an instant wand to wave to cure the water, but it's going to allow other curative measures to continue to have benefit and effect.
Of the five dams remaining on the Cuyahoga between Akron and Cleveland, two will be left standing - at least for now - and the rest are targeted for removal. Once those dams are gone, for most of its length, the river that once burned will once again flow free. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.