People play in the water near the Ballville Dam on the Sandusky River. Some worry that the plan to dismantle the dam will allow all of the trapped sediment to flow into Lake Erie, possibly worsening algal blooms.
FREMONT — Toledo’s recent water crisis heightened concern from some who want to make sure the proposed removal of the Sandusky River’s Ballville Dam doesn’t worsen algal blooms.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in an environmental study released earlier this month, recommended the incremental removal of the dam and installation of an ice-control structure. The city of Fremont will make the final decision on whether or not to remove its dam, and Mayor Jim Ellis expects city council to consider its fate this fall.
The Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club and a nearby property owner cautioned agencies to make sure the sediment trapped behind the dam, estimated in studies to range from 840,000 to about 1.3 million cubic yards, doesn’t trigger more harmful algae as it is flows into the river toward Lake Erie.
“[We] want to make sure we’re not releasing toxins or harmful chemicals that are going to make the algal problem worse,” said Ann Keefe, the chapter’s Lake Erie Conservation Coordinator.
The organization typically supports dam removals to improve water quality and fish habitat, but the Ballville Dam, constructed between 1911 and 1913 and located about 18 miles upstream of Lake Erie’s Sandusky Bay, needs to be handled with care.
The dam is one of the oldest and largest dams in the watershed, Ms. Keefe said, and current water quality concerns make it imperative to exercise “a little more caution.” Ms. Keefe called for officials to have a plan in place to stop the release of sediment if a problem is detected.
The Fish and Wildlife Service study indicates high sediment and nutrient loads in the river, partly caused by agricultural runoff.
That can be a concern “due to their potential to influence water quality in Lake Erie,” but the study states water quality is expected to improve with the dam’s removal and the return to an unobstructed river.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources also recommends an incremental removal of the dam over a couple of years to allow for a gradual drawdown. The approach would give time for some of the sediment behind the dam to settle and reseed, minimizing “to the best extent possible the movement of the sediment that’s trapped behind the dam,” said Jeff Tyson, Lake Erie program administrator for the ODNR Division of Wildlife.
Mr. Tyson said the particulate phosphorus found in the sediment is not as likely to drive a toxic algal bloom as soluble phosphorus.
Both the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, are reviewing permit applications related to the dam’s potential removal. The Ohio EPA will hold a public meeting regarding the project at 6 p.m. Thursday at Terra State Community College.
Mayor Ellis said he’ll look to those two agencies to determine if the release of sediment will cause a problem.
“It’s their job to look at these environmental issues and decide if what is being proposed is acceptable,” Mr. Ellis said. “I know some of these opponents of taking out the dam don’t have a lot of confidence in that happening. They seem to feel that the agencies are so intent on getting rid of the dam that they’ll allow something to happen that shouldn't happen. …; I think these people are professionals at the agencies; they are going to deal with it.”
But Dina Pierce, Ohio EPA spokesman, said the agency has no plans to take water quality samples as the dam comes down or perform other testing before. Its permit relates to proposed wetlands-filling activities involved in the project.
“We believe removing the dam will actually improve water quality,” she said, adding that the recent environmental study indicates if the dam is removed slowly “it’s not going to be a problem.”
Water thunders over the Ballville Dam, one of the oldest and largest on the watershed. The sediment behind the dam is described by one activist as ‘silt on steroids’ and requires special care.
Concerns about algae were raised to the Army Corps, which asked Fremont to submit information regarding the issue for the federal agency’s review of the permit application.
“If it is a concern, we could look at mitigating measures that could be included and issue a permit that requires those mitigated measures to be implemented,” said Mark Scalabrino, chief of the Ohio Applications Section, Regulatory Branch of the Army Corps.
City and state officials dismissed dredging and hauling away the sediment that has caused the worries as an alternative to allowing it to flow down the river. An analysis estimated it would cost $26 million to partially dredge and up to $93.4 million to fully dredge the impoundment behind the dam.
“...[I]t was determined that dredging the impoundment was neither necessary nor economically feasible. While in theory this alternative could meet portions of the purpose and need, likely reducing some environmental impacts, practicality and costs prohibit its feasibility,” the environmental study states.
It’s estimated to cost more than $6 million to take out the dam, and about $7.8 million in state and federal grants are available to fund its removal. Rehabilitation of the sea wall and dam, where for decades inspections have noted deteriorating conditions, is expected to cost several million more than removal. Mr. Ellis believes the removal will cost more than the study estimates and wants a project contractor to prepare another cost analysis before the city makes its decision.
“Lake Erie is fighting for its life because of the farm runoff,” said Jim Sherck, an attorney who lives near the river.
Upstream of the dam, the river runs wide and lazily. Ripples skirt occasional outcroppings that are thick with trees and foliage. The thunder of falling water sounds as water falls over the dam. Trees take root on a rocky island near the bottom of the dam.
The material behind the dam is potent — Mr. Sherck calls it “silt on steroids” — and letting it flow into the river “is an irrational act,” he said.
“I think there should be a moratorium put on this project until further testing is done, further studies are done,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service study was released Aug. 1, the day before Toledo warned 500,000 metro residents not to drink or use tap water because of heightened toxic algae levels.
Mr. Sherck described the Toledo water crisis as “a game changer” that should prompt agencies to take a closer look at Ballville Dam plans.
“If they are going to release this, they are going to have make sure. There’s no room for error,” Mr. Sherck said.