DAM REPLACEMENT GIVES PAUSE
Residents in central Ohio fear there could be disruption to recreation.
BUCKEYE LAKE, Ohio - J-me Braig smiles fondly as she talks about the six generations of her family that have loved Buckeye Lake. She's in good spirits, considering a recent report warned that the 4.1-mile earthen dam into which her home is built could fail catastrophically and flood neighborhoods behind it, threatening 3,000 people.
Braig chuckles when she mentions that when she sleeps in the lower level of her house, the dam is just on the other side of the wall. "I've never worried about it till up till now," she says, noting she's concerned, not fearful.
About 370 homes are built into the roughly 180-year-old central Ohio dam, which is mostly edged by a masonry wall and vertical metal plates that catch the waves in the recreational reservoir.
In the few steps from Braig's porch to the grassy embankment's edge, she crosses the invisible line between private and public land, a blurred division brought into focus by a recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report.
It traced the dam's unusual problems to 1895, when the state sold parts of the embankment for private use. Over time, bits and chunks were carved away for the long row of buildings tucked tightly into the slope. People dug foundations for cottages and homes, ran utility lines, and appropriated the state land next to their docks, sprucing up the waterside with flagpoles, flower beds, and patios.
The Corps concluded the development created defects in the embankment, increasing the risk of dam failure. Other officials outlined a worst-case scenario: Something - a gas explosion at a home, perhaps - causes a break and sends an eight-foot wave of water and mud crashing into the community behind the embankment.
Emergency-management officials plan exercises just in case, and others are taking precautions. A preschool near the lake closed, and a campground owner says he's thinking about how to evacuate campers if something goes wrong.
Everyone wants to avoid a disaster. But each time concerns about potential deterioration were raised previously, residents pushed back or government leadership switched and little changed, Braig said.
This time, state officials committed to building a new dam between the existing one and the water at an estimated cost of up to $150 million. As design work begins, officials also decided to keep the water level low in the relatively shallow lake.
For locals who depend on the lake, the Corps' assessment has led to more questions than answers. Will lower water deter boaters and tourists? How will businesses be affected? Will the fish die or appalling algae thrive? What about Cranberry Bog, the restricted-access nature preserve with a unique ecological history? Will local property values tumble? Will the dam hold in the meantime?
And where, exactly, is that line between private interests and the state's turf?
Some locals wonder whether officials could leave more water in the lake to keep watercraft and business afloat for visitors - like the thousands of people who pack in for Fourth of July fireworks.
Buckeye Lake Winery owner Tracy Higginbotham calls the state's fix overdue but worries about the impact. Day trippers and weekenders might head elsewhere, he said, and residents won't patronize waterfront businesses like his as frequently if it requires a drive around the lake instead of a jaunt across the water.
Economically, he said, "it's going to be painful."
Braig, who runs the Greater Buckeye Lake Historical Society, predicts pontoons, canoes, and kayaks still will be used this summer, and she is confident the society's tour boat will be out, too, though it may carry only half the usual 40 passengers.
Acknowledging she might be in the minority, she views the lake as she views its future: "It's not half empty. It's half full."
A half-mile down the dam, Vic Silva, 62, is less optimistic. He wants to sell his place and retire but figures that won't happen until a new dam is finished. Meanwhile, his boat might be stuck at a marina, and his dock, crippled by ice over the winter, has tipped into the water.
Should he rebuild it? He spots the Buckeye Lake State Park manager doing a daily dam inspection and asks what to do.
Nothing, manager Jason Wesley tells him, at least not until there's more public information about what's next. That doesn't satisfy Silva, who complains that it's tough to get straight answers.
Wesley understands residents' frustration, but for now, no new docks are allowed.
"We want to stop everything that's going on out there," he said, "until we can wrap our hands around everything that's in that U.S. Army Corps assessment."