THORNVILLE – The Village of Thornville could be a base for emergency operations should the Buckeye Lake dam experience a breach. “Anything we can do to help,” said Thornville Police Chief Darrell Ball.
Ohio Governor John Kasich announced March 19 the lake would remain at winter or low pool for at least five years as the state allocated up to $150 million to replace the 4.1-mile earthen dam. Kasich’s announcement was in response to an Army Corps of Engineers assessment that the dam had a high likelihood of failure.
Ball said Perry County Sheriff William Barker contacted him because Thornville is at a much higher elevation compared to other Perry County areas around the lake and has access to MARCS radio service so Perry County could coordinate with Fairfield and Licking counties.
Thornville Administrator Beth Patrick said residents should make extra effort to shop locally and support lake area businesses while the lake remains at low pool; remaining at low pool will severely limit boat traffic and tourism while the dam is being repaired. “We need to make a concerted effort to support our neighbors,” she said. Patrick said the repair process would definitely affect businesses on the south side of the lake and she doubts the state would ever agree to raise the lake level any higher than low pool during the repair process. “The governor has spoken,” Patrick said. “Instead of going to Columbus, go local,” she said.
Thornville Mayor Gavin Renner, in a statement, said he can’t, at this time, support any efforts to raise the lake above low pool until the dam is repaired. According to his statement, “Essentially council and I take the safety concerns of the Army Corps of Engineers very seriously. It’s hard to argue against the expertise of the Corps given that they have a well-established track record and are the leading authority in the world on such matters. We acknowledge that there are some unknown factors as far as how the dam was constructed and how far it’s degraded. However, it’s not worth risking human lives. It may not fail for another 20 years or more but I couldn’t live with that on my conscience. Therefore we can’t support filling the lake until we have more information.
“In this situation, it’s important to remember that we need to hold on to hope. The governor and state representatives have expressed their commitment to work on funding a fix for this problem. I expect them to follow through on that promise. I’m looking for ODNR to initiate some sort of process that they will follow to analyze the problem, figure out a solution and execute on that plan. My expectation is that ODNR will have someone take a closer look at the dam to try and understand how it’s constructed, how it can be taken apart and what needs to be done to replace it. Maybe doing this work will help them understand more about the safety concerns but I don’t think that’ll be the top priority for them.
“Given that the governor and ODNR aren’t giving us much of a choice about the lake level, it’s going to be a sink or swim situation from a business point of view. Businesses will have to get creative to continue to draw people out here while things are being repaired. Unfortunately, we have to overcome a lot of negative statewide and national press basically saying we’re closed for business. We’re going to have to send a clear message that this is not the case.
“The Buckeye Lake area, as we all know, has a lot to offer anyone who is interested in recreation or the outdoors. It’s still going to be a nice summer drive or motorcycle tour around the lake. People in Columbus can still visit our restaurants and bars for entertainment if they choose. Dawes Arboretum is right around the corner, they have a tree sale every spring and fall. We have Flint Ridge close by, Indian mounds, Legend Valley, Backwoods Festival, etc, etc, etc. There is going to be plenty of things to draw people out here. What we do with that opportunity is up to us.
“From an environmental impact standpoint, Buckeye Lake has always been an artificial lake. Humans changed it from a bog. A bog doesn’t support fish or life in the same way as a lake. Fish are going to die, but they can be replaced (Hopefully without the carp). We have the ODNR fish farm on the northwest end of the lake. They’ll likely be working on this. The lake is going to naturally want to be a low oxygen, high acidic environment. Cranberry Bog probably will love the situation because that’s its natural state. It’s a sensitive and unique environment that’s been deteriorating for years because it’s been sitting in the middle of a lake. I would like to see ODNR take advantage of this opportunity to stabilize the bog, and wall it off from the lake so it can be managed as a bog. Doing that would be yet another a draw for visitors from Columbus.
“It’s important to keep things in perspective. The Lake will likely recover from this issue and survive another 180 years. There are plenty of people who live out here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I expect those people are going to be around for the long haul. Home values might take a temporary dip until people realize that the lake is going to be fixed and that it’ll be better than it was. Families are still going to go out on the weekends, buy a pizza on a Friday night after working hard during the week. People are going to relax with a beer, visit friends and do the things people do. We’re going to still need to fix our houses, go to the hardware store, visit the pharmacy, talk with attorneys and financial advisors. Life will have to go one as best it can.
“I’ll relay a story from my youth. When I was 10, my grandfather brought me to the ruins of the old Buckeye Lake Amusement Park. I was pretty young but I remember him taking me around to look at the old buildings, the water fountain which still sits there today, the remnants of the pool, the midway. All of those things were long gone and the place was a mess but I remember that trip fondly. My grandfather told me the stories of that place. That was the place where he and my grandmother would go on dates during the war and buy carnival glass. He talked about how my great grandfather worked on the interurban as a mail car conductor. My grandfather liked to fish and we went fishing for a while on the point. I swam in the algae filled pool, we picked at tiles on the midway and fountain, threw rocks in the lake. I remember that as one of my happiest days.
“That was 30 years ago. Now all those ruins are gone and replaced by the current boat ramp and some houses. Someday, when my grandchildren come to visit me, I plan to tell them about those things that came before. I’m sure they won’t understand or care as they’ll be occupied by skipping stones and catching fish. Someday I’m sure I’ll tell them the story of how the lake had to be fixed and you could walk across from one end to the other. While now, the problems are real, by then, they’ll just be a distant memory.”
Renner concludes, “I understand we all have fears and uncertainty about the future. No one likes to suffer. Things will change, that’s the inevitable part of life. In the end people will still be coming to the lake, continuing to have fun, making memories and sharing this great resource with their families.”
Perry County Commissioner Jim O’Brien also issued a statement regarding the Buckeye Lake dam reconstruction. According to his statement, “Buckeye Lake is an extremely valuable community asset and its residents and businesses make a substantial contribution to our public revenues through property tax valuations and sales tax receipts.
“Buckeye Lake is also a key component in our economic development strategy for Perry County. We’ve worked with Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Public Policy to focus on a development strategy with tourism as a targeted sector. Buckeye Lake will play a key role as the ‘gateway’ to Perry County’s tourism assets. We are currently helping fund an economic impact study that will demonstrate the importance of Buckeye Lake to our areas prosperity.
“The Commissioners from Perry County are committed to seek input from residents and businesses throughout the community to ensure that plans that are developed for Buckeye Lake are mindful of the economic impact that this will have on local businesses and pursue ways to deal with the dam issues while lessening the impact on the our local and state economy.
“We will be working closely with our neighboring Commissioners in Fairfield and Licking Counties to work with state and regional officials to ensure that Buckeye Lake continues to be a tremendous resource for us locally and to the state. We encourage ODNR to explore all possible sources of regional, state and federal assistance and funding as appropriate are pursued.”
O’Brien concluded, “We encourage all Perry County residents to attend any public meetings in Fairfield, Licking and Perry County pertaining to these issues to ensure that their voices are heard.”