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FREMONT — The Ballville Dam is a centenarian that certainly shows its age. The structure has stretched across the width of the Sandusky River about a dozen loopy miles from Sandusky Bay since Woodrow Wilson was president.
The last significant maintenance on the structure took place in the first few months of the Richard Nixon presidency, in 1969. The dam was originally built to provide hydroelectric power, and then its role changed about 50 years ago to one that helped supply the city with water.
With a new upground reservoir now feeding Fremont’s water needs, the fate of the Ballville Dam is popping around in a hot skillet and on the front burner. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public information session and hearing on the proposed demolition of the dam at 6 p.m. on Aug. 21 at the Neeley Center at Terra State Community College.
At that time, Ohio EPA will outline the game plan for the proposed project, and following that informational session, the public gets the opportunity for comments and questions on the issue. This should move the discussion from the mom & pop restaurants, the formerly smoke-filled backrooms and the bait shops, and allow the air to be cleared.
Rumors have swirled endlessly about an unnamed government entity supposedly “trying to take over” control of the dam, or some cadre of political heavyweights wanting to keep the dam to protect the real estate interests of those living on the river above the barrier. There have been wide-eyed tales of the dam being “blown up,” releasing a huge sediment plug to plow its way to the lake, and subjecting downtown to more of the floods that were its curse historically.
Fact and fiction have congealed into an inseparable slurry around the dam, and this has served to only further muddy the waters.
What I think most of us can agree on is that the dam has created two separate ecosystems where there used to be just one. The structure, which is about 400 feet in length and close to 35 feet high, breaks the short lower stretch of the Sandusky River from the bulk of the watershed upstream.
The Sandusky drains some 2,000 square miles, much of it prized agricultural land spread over parts of 10 counties. On its approximate 130-mile run to Sandusky Bay, the river collects billions of gallons of water, and a reservoir approximately 90 acres in size is formed where the dam hinders that water’s path to Lake Erie.
The best course for the river, and the upcoming public meeting, would be to leave the innuendo and tall tales out of the discussion. A decision based on sound science would seem to be the winning way for this to be handled.
Certain studies have indicated that without the dam in their path, walleyes would use areas of the river well above the structure to spawn. In a May letter to Fremont Mayor Jim Ellis, Josh Knights, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Ohio, said: “without the Ballville Dam, there would be considerably more stream habitat for fish and freshwater mussels.”
He cited a Great Lakes Fisheries Commission study that concluded a Sandusky River without the Ballville Dam “would restore spawning populations of the state endangered lake sturgeon.”
Knights also added that removing the dam would “provide an ecological and economic boost” for both the Sandusky River and Lake Erie.
Scanning the accounts of dozens of old, obsolete dams that have been removed around the country, it is tough to find a case where there has been any science-based buyer’s remorse over a dam’s demise. After the St. Johns Dam was removed upstream on the Sandusky in 2003, a Heidelberg University study showed “significant improvement” in both the fish and macroinvertebrate communities.
If a unique and contrary scenario exists with the Ballville Dam, we should hear all of the specifics on it in the Aug. 21 session.
Fremont faces a tough decision here, but we all have a stake in this, since we are all stewards of our rivers, streams, and lakes. At this time, it seems prudent to keep the political sausage-making on this issue well away from the discussion, and concentrate on the long-term health of the river.
As has often been the case, whenever the subject is streams, rivers, or lakes, I bounce back many years and hear my father’s voice as he repeatedly told his young sons to leave each natural place we frequented “better than you found it.” That could translate into something as simple as picking up a discarded cigarette butt while fishing from the river’s edge, or something requiring more of a commitment, such as enhancing an adjacent wetlands or preventing pollutants from entering the waterway.
His directive applied to a certain stretch of the Au Sable River where he loved to fish for trout, it applied to any of the small roadside rest picnic areas we used to see along Ohio’s highways, it applied to a section of Tymochtee Creek where we often seined for bait, and it applied to that gurgling run of Fish Creek behind my grandparent’s home in the mountains of West Virginia where we lived out our Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn dreams.
Leave it better than you found it.
That was wise advice back then, and it resonates even more today. We have an obligation to leave our children, and the generations to come after them, a better Sandusky River. We just need to decide how to best accomplish that.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.