The Buckeye Lake dam crisis is now six weeks old. It started when a couple of residents noticed that ODNR did not close the regulatory spillway in Buckeye Lake Village as traditionally done on March 1.
ODNR Director James Zehringer had pledged in an August 13, 2014, letter to Buckeye Lake Dam stakeholders to work with the community “in an open and transparent process.” He also announced that ODNR had entered into an agreement some four months earlier with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to assess the dam’s current condition. A USACE team conducted a site reconnaissance August 25 – 28, first spending several hours on the Queen of the Lake II slowly cruising along the dam with some local leaders. Forty-eight of the 49 photos included in the final USACE report were taken on August 25. The final photo was taken on a one-day return visit on Dec. 15.
That two-hour boat ride was both the first and last time local leaders/residents were involved in the assessment. ODNR/USACE conducted three open houses (in Buckeye Lake Village, Millersport and Hebron) last Fall, but offered no specific information. The final one was Nov. 19 in Hebron. Participants were told to expect the USACE assessment early next year. Zehringer’s letter pledged, “The final assessment report will be completed by early 2015 and will be made available to the public for review and comment.”
“Early 2015” turned out to be March 11 during an invitation-only teleconference. Just eight days later on March 19, Governor John Kasich announced his “no debate or negotiations” decision on the lake’s water level and the state’s intention to replace the dam at a cost of up to $150 million over a five year period.
ODNR formally responded to inquiries about keeping the spillway gate open on March 4. That statement from ODNR’s Division of Engineering Communications Manager John Wisse started ODNR’s continuing scare campaign. Wisse wrote, “Out of concern for public safety, ODNR is currently keeping the lake at its present winter pool elevation until the final Corps report is issued to ODNR and reviewed by ODNR.” A week later, a pre-tele-conference story in The Dispatch stated homes, businesses and people in the flood zone ‘face the potential of being hit by up to an 8-foot wave of water, mud and debris.’ That statement has defined subsequent media coverage. Yet that fear-inducing and inflammatory statement is NOT in the USACE report.
ODNR’s speed in building the dam crisis is breathtaking. The dam would be in much better shape if ODNR had spent a fraction of the time and effort it has spent orchestrating this crisis on dam maintenance over the years. Quite frankly, ODNR’s explanations and chronology don’t hold up to close inspection. Just this Tuesday at a meeting with Licking County Commissioners, Wisse said, USACE personnel “stood there wide-eyed on the west bank”…They said, ‘This thing is incredible.’”
If Wisse’s story is accurate, that happened in late August. Why then did ODNR maintain full pool last year well into December when they typically start pulling down the level on November 1? Why didn’t they share that reaction with local residents and businesses so they could they could start making plans for a reduced recreation season or worse? Marinas, in particular, would have a much better chance of surviving if they had known in time to adjust their purchases and inventory.
Wisse also said Tuesday that the lake hasn’t been down to ODNR’s definition of ‘winter pool’ since 1993. If the danger of failure is so critical that the lake must now be dropped to its lowest level in 22 years, why was it maintained at the traditional level this winter? We could ask plenty of similar questions. Most are covered by this single question: What did ODNR and USACE discuss over the last 11 months and when did they discuss it?
To answer that question, The Beacon filed a written Public Records Act request with ODNR on March 9. We sought “to review any and all public records created since Jan. 1, 2014, including letters, emails, agreements or contracts and meeting summaries between the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of concerning the assessment, status and condition, and progress reports of the assessment of the Buckeye Lake Dam.” Our request was promptly acknowledged by an ODNR attorney. Though we have checked on the status of our request several times, we have yet to receive a SINGLE document. Ohio’s public records law requires a response within a reasonable period of time. We’re now at 31+ days and still counting; that’s not reasonable. At this point, it’s reasonable to ask, “What’s ODNR hiding or trying to clean up?”
ODNR’s attitude since early March has ranged from merely confrontational to ugly. Property owners along the dam are particularly viewed with contempt as though they illegally built their homes there. Anyone who dared to comment on some of ODNR’s half-baked dam plans over the years is considered an enemy and blamed for ODNR’s failure to address long-standing issues with the dam.
Don’t forget that ODNR built a large spillway at Seller’s Point in the mid- 1990’s, but failed to properly size its outflow channel. That significantly increased flooding along the South Fork of the Licking River that even closed I-70 a number of times. Though ODNR owed up to their error by 2000, it wasn’t fixed until last year.
While ODNR occasionally gives lip service about the impact on the local economy, it’s clear they could care less. It’s now all about “public safety,” though for some reason they weren’t concerned about ‘public safety’ until early March.
Zehringer’s commitment to “seek residents’ input and work through these issues with the community” has become decisions “will be announced.” ODNR seems to now be employing a “drip torture,” every couple of days hammering another nail into our economy’s coffin. Tuesday, we were told that ODNR’s “winter pool” is not what we have seen for the last 21 winters. It’s lower. During the March 11 tele-conference, ODNR said it wouldn’t be charging for docks this season. Permit holders have yet to hear anything from ODNR. ODNR has said that no seawall or dock repairs will be allowed anywhere on the lake this season. Why can’t non-dam docks and sea walls be repaired when the water level is so low?
The threat of massive fish kills this summer has been dismissed. ODNR trumpets its mission in every release – “ODNR ensures a balance between wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all.” Yet Zehringer is ignoring the destruction of the Buckeye Lake fishery, simply stating “fish can be replaced.” The next nail is likely the ‘announcement’ on horsepower and wake restrictions. Let’s make sure there’s no aeration of the lake this summer so we can have a bumper crop of toxic algae.
With good reason, many residents are asking why we are being punished by ODNR. What have we done to deserve the vindictive attitude? Just Tuesday, Wisse said the lake should have been drained when the Ohio Erie Canal stopped operating in the mid-1800’s. So Ohio’s first state park should have been aborted.
Unfortunately, ODNR’s statements and actions show no commitment to minimize the ecological and economic impact from the expected years of low water levels. Nor do they demonstrate a desire to work with the community to address the dam’s deficiencies as quickly and cost efficiently as possible.
Governor Kasich turned Buckeye Lake into Kasich Lake on March 19. He now owns the results. The odds that it will turn into an economic and ecological disaster are much higher than any catastrophic dam failure. Destroying Ohio’s first state park won’t help his plans for national office.