FREMONT — This could be the year Fremont makes a final decision on the fate of the century-old Ballville Dam.
Repairing or removing the Sandusky River dam has been the topic of swirling discussions and study for years, and officials expect the initial version of an environmental impact statement to be released by the middle of this month.
A 60-day comment period will follow, including a 7 p.m. Feb. 19 meeting at Terra State Community College to give the public a chance to give feedback. A completed environmental report could be ready by mid-May, setting up a decision by Fremont City Council.
The study will examine impacts of dam removal, considering the cost, environmental, and socioeconomic factors, said Mayor Jim Ellis.
It also looks at alternatives such as repairing the dam, repairing it and creating a fish ladder or other mechanism for fish to pass through, or removing the dam in phases.
The Ballville Dam was built on the Sandusky River between 1911 and 1913, just south of Fremont, by the Fremont Power & Light Co., as part of a hydro-electric facility. The Fremont utility later became part of the Ohio Power Co.
The city bought the Ballville Dam in 1959 and repurposed it to provide the city’s water supply. But deterioration of the dam and associated sea wall has been noted in inspections since 1980.
In 2007, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources issued a notice to the city stating that, as a result of its poor condition, the dam was being operated in violation of the law.
Removal of the dam is favored by the natural resources agency, in part because it would open 22 miles of the Sandusky River to migratory fish species, including economically important sport fish such as walleye and white bass. That could mean millions of dollars for the local area.
The city applied for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to remove the dam, according to Mr. Ellis.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has championed the dam’s removal, estimated to cost about $8.5 million and for which officials said roughly $7.8 million in federal and state grants have been secured.
The expense to fix the dam and stabilize the seawall is estimated to be $8.9 million or $10.7 million, depending on the option chosen and including contingencies for unexpected costs. No grants to cover repair work have been obtained, though Mr. Ellis said loan programs could help the city borrow money at “reasonable interest rates.”
ODNR awarded the city $5 million to build a drinking water reservoir, a project finished last year after soaring costs and delays. The agency will pursue repayment of the grant if the city retains the dam because removal was a funding condition, said Scott Zody, division of wildlife chief.
“Habitat is the watchword, if you will, as to why we advocate for dam removal wherever and whenever we can, whether it’s a major structure like Ballville or smaller, low-head dams that are on [the] rivers and streams of Ohio,” he said.
Restoring the free flow of water along the river would improve its overall health and fish habitat. The Ballville Dam’s future has been discussed at ODNR since the mid-1990s, and its removal would be a “major accomplishment,” he said.
Fremont Councilman Michael Koebel wants to make sure the city studies all options before pulling out the dam. He’s concerned about removal of silt from behind the structure and the project’s expense.
“I would like us to explore what’s out there to help us save the dam,” he said. Taking out the dam in phases would allow time to stabilize the banks and let vegetation take root, Mr. Zody said.
The construction of an ice control structure could be recommended if the dam is removed, officials said.
The city also is in the midst of hiring a contractor for the project, whether that ends up being removal or repair work. It has a list of four firms, which have a Jan. 17 deadline to provide proposals, Mr. Ellis said.
The chosen firm will provide assistance with finishing design work and providing recommendations to city council.
The city contracted with Stantec, an engineering and architecture consultant, to help with the environmental review in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.