Fremont’s folly


Fremont residents are getting soaked even before the first drop of Sandusky River water gets diverted to the city’s much-maligned new reservoir.

The estimated cost of the reservoir, the most ambitious project in Fremont’s history, is more than double its initial $18 million budget. Many of its cost overruns are the results of construction delays and redesigns caused by disputes with contractors, which the city will spend $9.5 million to resolve.

But more broadly, they are the results of bad planning by many parties. These lapses are expected to lead to double-digit water rate increases for Fremont consumers next year.

Questions remain about how much former Mayor Terry Overmyer knew about the reservoir site off Sandusky County Road 41 before the city acquired it for $750,000. The same goes for the City Council members who approved the site, the employees and consultants who recommended it, and the state regulators who allowed work to proceed.

The city broke ties with the project’s original contractor after a Sandusky County judge ruled in 2011 that its engineering firm had “drafted a design that was not buildable.” Now, the process of filling the reservoir should begin once the Ohio Department of Natural Resources finishes certifying the project.

The reservoir is in an area known for its geology of soft karst — limestone that can crumble and develop fissures, cracks, and sinkholes. Some of the holes are larger than basketballs.

The city at first resisted including a liner system, relenting only after officials agreed that might be the only device to make sure the reservoir retains water. But if the system fails, water could seep through the karst, leaving Fremont with a $40 million hole.

Mayor Jim Ellis, who replaced Mr. Overmyer, said the project could become a money pit. Yet it’s too far advanced for the city to abandon it.

The Ohio Environment Protection Agency told Fremont it had to do more to avoid high nitrate levels in the city’s drinking water, which occur during periods of heavy farm runoff each spring. That was the right call: Boil-water advisories are annoying and offer fewer safeguards than avoiding nitrates in the first place.

Fremont chose to build a reservoir to coincide with the removal of the century-old Ballville Dam. The Ohio DNR wants the dam removed to help restore the Sandusky River’s natural flow.

The department’s critics claim the purported benefit for walleye spawning has been exaggerated. Meanwhile, Fremont officials complain about the Ohio EPA edict to ensure water quality.

Such petulant behavior occurs when there’s a lack of due diligence. The Fremont reservoir project makes painfully clear the steep price of bad planning.