FREMONT — Bill Hensley rode his bike to the Fremont reservoir, where barely a ripple disturbed the glass-like surface.
The Fremont resident wanted to see the site, now open after years of work and delays. The project’s cost ballooned from an estimated $18 million to the mid-$40 millions after construction struggles and lawsuits.
But unlike the reservoir’s calm surface, controversy continues to roil: Should gasoline-powered boats be allowed on the roughly 100-acre body of water off Sandusky County Road 41?
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says yes. Others, like Mr. Hensley, don’t think it’s a good idea. “It’s supposed to be clean drinking water. Why do you want to pollute it?” said Mr. Hensley, after stopping near the reservoir on a recent afternoon.
The ODNR contends allowing gasoline-powered boats is a condition of a $5 million grant it gave the city for the project.
Mayor Jim Ellis and some residents are concerned about gasoline use on a reservoir built as a drinking water source.
Fremont in 2008 decided to construct the reservoir after the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency told city officials to correct periodically high nitrate levels in drinking water from the Sandusky River.
“The residents of Fremont have gone through a lot with this reservoir project,” Mr. Ellis said. “The perception of the quality of the water has to be the paramount consideration.”
The mayor plans to recommend an ordinance to city council banning gas-powered motors on the reservoir, with the exception of ODNR, city, and emergency boats. The proposal, expected to go before council July 18, will include boat regulations limiting electric-motor boats to those with an equivalent of less than 10 horsepower and restricting the kinds of anchors boaters use, to protect the liner that keeps water from draining through the porous rock.
ODNR contends Fremont must allow gas-powered boats because it accepted project money from the boater angler fund, which uses a portion of gasoline taxes to promote access to public waters, specifically for gas-powered boats, said Scott Zody, chief of ODNR's Division of Wildlife.
“It’s pretty clear what the expectations were,” he said.
The reservoir would add another recreation and fishing opportunity for smaller boats whose owners don’t want to traverse larger bodies of water like Lake Erie, Mr. Zody said. Worries about how gasoline-powered engines could contaminate reservoir water have “no evidentiary background,” he said.
“It’s very, very much a perception and a red herring that has been thrown out there by a handful of people that are opposed to the removal of the dam as well as the reservoir being built in the first place,” the ODNR official said. The state agency also has called for the removal of the Ballville Dam in an effort to restore the Sandusky River’s natural flow and improve habitat. Mr. Zody said dam removal is another grant condition.
Mr. Ellis said an environmental study must be finished before a decision is made on dam removal. He expects city officials to consider next spring whether to remove the dam or repair it.
ODNR could seek return of grants given to Fremont if the city doesn’t satisfy what the department considers to be its obligations, Mr. Zody said.
The department also is waiting on the city’s boat decision before figuring out how to stock the reservoir with fish, he said, noting that ODNR had planned to stock the reservoir with 100,000 small yellow perch to build a long-term fishery.
Allowing gas-powered boats on a reservoir is a local decision, and there are no state or federal prohibitions regarding it, said Dina Pierce, spokesman for the Ohio EPA. “Drinking water is treated and monitored to make sure that it meets all the contaminant regulations, so that would be going on whether they allow it or not,” she said.
Fremont residents don’t want to allow the gas-powered boats, said Mike Koebel, a former city councilman running for office again. He talked about the issue with citizens when he was collecting signatures supporting his candidacy.
“There wasn’t one person that I spoke with that wanted boats on the reservoir. Everyone thought that was stupid,” he said. “It was built for safe, clean drinking water, period — not for recreation use.”
Mara Lance of Oak Harbor and Lori Hoff of Fremont recently walked the path that circles the reservoir. Ms. Hoff said her concern is pollution. Ms. Lance said the reservoir should be reserved for such small vessels as rowboats, kayaks, and sailboats.
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