FREMONT — When government officials try telling residents the crumbling, century-old Ballville Dam and the city’s huge, modern reservoir are two separate projects, people laugh.
They know there’s more tying the city’s two biggest water projects together than the Sandusky River watershed.
There are obvious strings attached: State funding for the massively overbudget reservoir is tied to the dam’s eventual removal.
But the Fremont City Council ultimately decides the dam’s fate.
The cost for the reservoir, originally budgeted at $18 million, has swelled well beyond the mid-$40 million mark.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has for years wanted the dam to come down to improve the Sandusky River’s flow and its habitat for walleye, white bass, freshwater drum, native mussels, and other forms of aquatic life that benefit Lake Erie and Ohio’s powerful sport-fishing industry.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has had the Ohio DNR’s back on this one, dangling a $2 million carrot in the form of grants available under the Obama Administration’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
That money would greatly reduce the proposed dam removal’s estimated $6.4 million price tag. In fact, the two agencies believe they can help the city identify as much as $7.8 million in state and federal grants — covering the project’s entire cost and then some, if need be.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Free money to take down an eyesore and a safety hazard while enhancing area recreation?
Not so fast.
Fremont Mayor Jim Ellis said during an interview at a recent informational session at Terra State Community College — the official roll-out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s all-important environmental impact statement associated with the proposed dam removal — that public mistrust and anxiety about the reservoir is such that city councilmen are considering rehabilitating the dam, even though that would cost $8.9 million to $18.6 million and leave the city with no known funding sources.
Doing so would give the city a backup if the reservoir fails.
“A lot of people in the community don’t trust the integrity of the reservoir,” Mr. Ellis said. “And if you took out the dam, what would the backup be?”
The city draws from the Sandusky River for its drinking water. But nitrates in the spring from farm runoff are too high to be removed by the city’s water-treatment plant.
That’s why the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ordered Fremont to pursue a reservoir or some other option in the first place: The agency wanted to get away from issuing boil-water advisories in the spring.
An even more expensive option — seemingly the most unlikely, yet one that Mr. Ellis said is still on the table — would involve a renovation that would allow hydroelectric power to be generated there again.
That has not been done since 1929.
Brian Elkington, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy program supervisor, said the federal agency would oppose such an effort.
Dams are not used to generate hydroelectric power in many parts of the country because of environmental impacts, he said.
Jeff Tyson, Ohio DNR Lake Erie program administrator, said the portion of the Sandusky which flows through Fremont hasn’t been used to its potential for fish habitat because of the dam’s presence.
“There’s suitable habitat up there, for sure,” Mr. Tyson said. “Walleye will use it if they get up there.”
The dam hasn’t had improvements to it since 1969.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it would cost Fremont $8.9 million to $10.7 million to rehabilitate it and maintain it to Ohio DNR safety standards. No grant money would be available for that option.
The premier rehabilitation effort would include construction of a fish passage elevator to allow for upstream movement of native fish. That doubles the cost, bringing it up to a range of $16.8 to $18.6 million. The $6.4 million cost to remove the dam is spread over a two-year timetable.
A fourth option, an expedited removal, would save $600,000 and bring the cost down to $5.8 million. It would allow the work to be done in six months.
But taking the dam down that fast would create a much bigger potential for sedimentation issues within the river, according to the environmental impact statement.
That can impact water clarity and cause short-term pollution, the report said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s proposal is to spend a little more and phase in the work over two years, Mr. Elkington said.
“From an ecological restoration standpoint, it’s hard to find a downside [to dam removal],” Mr. Tyson said.
The public comment period continues through March 26. Letters can be emailed to Ballvillefirstname.lastname@example.org, or via U.S. mail or fax to Brian Elkington, 5600 American Blvd. West, Bloomington, Minn. 55437.
The comments will be considered and the environmental impact statement will be finalized, then published in the Federal Register for a 30-day review, Mr. Elkington said.
After that, the city’s consultant is expected to bring forward a recommendation.
A final decision is not expected before June or July, Mr. Ellis said.
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 hydroelectric 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 would open 22 miles of the Sandusky River to migratory fish species.
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.
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