DAMS ON THE CUYAHOGA

Past and present

In the past, lowhead dams on the Cuyahoga River were a source of power and helped with the production of different industrial goods. They were put in place before people knew the damaging effects they could have on a waterway.

“The big thing with lowhead dams is that [they cause] water quality problems. The water stored behind the dam is altered so that oxygen is usually removed from it; it changes how the stream works, creating a water quality problem,” Ohio EPA Environmental Supervisor Bill Zawiski said.

A lowhead dam is usually fewer than 15 feet tall and is made of timber, stone, concrete and other materials, or some combination of materials. It extends from bank to bank across a stream channel, according to the Ohio Environmental Protective Agency.

“If they are not maintained and they are structurally unsafe, you either have to fix them or remove them because sometimes they do collapse and then that’s it,” John Peck, professor of Geosciences at the University of Akron, said.

The dams can pose other safety issues as well.

“A lot of reservoirs are potential drowning hazards and recreational hazards,” Krista Brown, a master’s student in the geology department at Kent State University, said. “A lot of the times with lowhead [dams], water will flow over them and people going over don’t know that they are there, which can be dangerous.”

Removing dams on the Cuyahoga

Munroe Falls Dam

The Munroe Falls dam was first built in 1817. It was 13 feet high and used to supply water for the business nearby.

“In the days of yore, they were set up to create power. On the Cuyahoga, they were either generating mechanical power and as they got modernized they would run electric-generating stations,” Zawiski said.

The dam was removed in 2006 for aesthetic enhancement and because it was a public safety hazard. According to Ohio EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load program (link: http://www.epa.ohio.gov/dsw/tmdl/index.aspx), oxygen no longer existed in the water, making it impossible for wildlife to exist.

“From the point of view of the EPA, when these dams are removed, the water quality that was impaired is restored,” Zawiski said. “There are side benefits in taking out a dam, like recreational boating and fishing.”

The funding for the removal of the dam came from the state of Ohio and totaled $1.37 million.

“When you take out a dam like Munroe Falls dam, for the first three years, the bottom of the river is covered in sand, but it is moving for every single day of the year,” Peck said.

Kent Dam

Dam Removal

The dam in Kent was built in 1836 and was 15 feet high. It was used historically for helping people navigate the river and providing industrial water for powering businesses in the area. When it was first proposed in 1998 that the dam be removed in order to improve water quality, the Ohio EPA’s request was met with a lot of skepticism and scrutiny.

“From a biological standpoint, having the water backed up is one of the biggest detriments of dams,” said Joel Bingham, a restoration construction specialist at EnviroScience. “You replace the natural flowing water with more a lake type of environment that is not conducive to river species.”

Citizens of Kent fought to keep the dam because of its historic value. The Kent Historical Society placed the Kent Dam on the National Register for Historical Places in 1977. The city proposed alternate ways for the Ohio EPA to improve the water quality of the river, but they were not heeded.

The dam finally was removed in 2004 in order to bring fish and wildlife back into that part of the river. It also was removed to help bring people back to the river and have them use it recreationally. Dams in general have the ability to affect water quality because they store water and take out the natural oxygen in the water, making it impossible for wildlife to survive.

“A part of it depends on how much material is stored behind it. Structural changes can happen and rivers can narrow and the velocity is improved,” Zawiski said. “From our standpoint, we see fish come back, and that indicates water quality.”

The funding for the removal of the Kent dam came from federal, state and municipal governments in Ohio and cost a total of $3.7 million.

Cuyahoga Falls dams

The most recent dam removals were the Sheraton and LeFever dams.

“The city and the EPA had acquired the funding to get this done. Our job is to make the dam removal possible from a design standpoint and removal standpoint,” said Bingham. “We design the restoration and helped interpret how the river would react and what to do, making the best decisions with how to lead the river and what to do with the dam material.” Both dams were removed because they were no longer serving their original purpose of providing hydroelectric power to the business near by.

“On the Sheraton one, we used the dam material to partially fill, at an angle, the upstream side of those power structures to shield that structure from receiving the full force of the river,” Bingham said.

Removing both dams cost a total of $1 million.

What’s next?

The next dam Zawiski said should be removed is the FirstEnergy Dam at the Gorge Metropolitan Park, also known as the Gorge dam, in Cuyahoga Falls. The Gorge dam is not considered a lowhead dam.

“We would love to remove it,” Zawiski said. “We have completed a study that tells us how much sediment is behind the dam.”

The Gorge dam stands 57 feet tall and has submerged the falls the city was named after for more than 90 years.

“It either needs to be repurposed or removed, but there is a lot that will go into that removal,” Brown said. “Akron is a huge industrial area, and because there is a lot of sediment behind it, there is a hazard for water contamination.”

Zawiski said the estimated cost to remove the dam would be $30-50 million and that there are still questions to be answered. “We will find out how to move the sediment; how much will that cost? Where will we move it? Ultimately we will have to ask for federal assistance,” he said.

If Zawiski’s plans to remove the Gorge dam are successful, the Cuyahoga River will soon have only two dams left; the Brecksville dam, which diverts water from the river to the Ohio & Erie Canal; and the Lake Rockwell dam, which creates a reservoir used for drinking water by the city of Akron.

“It was called Cuyahoga Falls because of the original falls and then we [humans] dammed it up and it wasn’t there anymore,” Brown said. “So now you are seeing what they actually was back in the 1900s, which is an awesome thing to see.”

Locating the dams

At one time, there were eight dams along the river.

FirstEnergy Dam (Gorge Dam)

57 feet tall

Built in 1912

Function:

  • generates hydropower and provides cooling-water storage for a coal-burning power plant

Reasons for proposed removal:

  • Water-quality improvement
  • Bring fish and wildlife back to the river
  • Expose the original falls in Cuyahoga Falls, which were covered by the dam structure

Estimated cost of dam removal: $50-60 million

Sheraton Dam

11 feet tall

Built in 1914 and 1918

Removed in 2013

Dam function:

  • Production of water for steel, rubber, copper and clay products

Reasons for removal:

  • Fish and wildlife habitat improvement
  • Water-quality improvement

Cost of dam removal: $1 million

LeFever Dam

13 feet tall

Built in 1914

Removed in 2013

Dam function:

  • Supply power

Reasons for Removal:

  • Fish and wildlife habitat improvement
  • Water-quality improvement

Cost of dam removal: $1 million

Munroe Falls Dam

13 feet tall

Built in 1903

Removed in 2005

Dam function:

  • Industrial water supply

Reasons for Removal:

  • Aesthetic enhancement
  • Fish and wildlife habitat improvement
  • Public safety hazard
  • Water-quality improvement

Cost of dam removal: $1.37 million

Kent Dam

15 feet tall

Built in 1836

Bypassed in 2005

Dam function:

  • Generate hydropower
  • Industrial water supply

Reasons for removal:

  • Fish and wildlife habitat improvement
  • Revitalizing the community
  • Water quality improvement
  • Recreational improvement

Cost of dam removal: $3.7 million

Brecksville Dam (Route 82 Dam)

8 feet tall

Current dam was built in 1951; previous dams (Pinery dam) in the area were built as early as 1827

Dam function:

  • Diverts water from the river to the Ohio & Erie Canal

Reasons for proposed removal or modification:

  • Fish and wildlife habitat improvement
  • Water quality improvement
  • Recreational improvement

Cost of dam removal or modification: unknown because there aren’t plans to remove them yet.

The project has been under review by the Ohio EPA since 2009.

Lake Rockwell Dam

Built in 1913

35 feet tall

Dam function:

  • Impounds the river to provide drinking water for the city of Akron

Peninsula Dam

Built as part of the Ohio & Erie Canal system

Dam function:

  • Diverted water to the Ohio & Erie Canal

Dam was rebuilt in 1906, but it has since been breached and is in very poor condition. Canoers are advised to portage around it.

Source: ODNR, National Park Service, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio EPA