A case study in environmental mismanagement: The Buckeye Lake Dam Conundrum

Ohio isn’t know for it’s lakes. In fact, unless you are from central Ohio, you probably have no idea that a Buckeye Lake exists.



Buckeye Lake is one of the largest lakes in Ohio. It began as a swamp that was converted to a reservoir via an earthen dike built to divert the Licking River to provide water for the Ohio and Erie Canal. Over the years the lake became a popular recreational destination for fishing and water sports enthusiasts due to its proximity to Columbus (Ohio’s capital city). In fact, an amusement park was built along the banks of the lake in the 1930’s and was immensely popular for a time. The lake boomed during these years and many families built cottages and vacation homes around the lake (including along the 4 mile earthen dam on the north bank of the lake. Below is a video of scenes form the old amusement park: Eventually the amusement park fell into disarray and was deserted and then torn down. In the meantime, the lake was still a popular destination and many people began to call it a permanent home. My family is one of the those families. We’ve had a house on the lake for generations and now both my father and his father own homes on the lake. So, what does this have to do with science? So far, not much. However, the lake is really shallow and has been having significant algal bloom problems (see Kathleen’s post about another Ohio lake with the same issues). The area surrounding the lake is primarily agricultural and runoff of sediment and fertilizer has been leading to summer blooms of harmful algae. A group of concerned locals has been working with the state to solve the problem (dredging the lake deeper, convincing farmers to switch to no-till practices, adding riparian buffer and more wetland to tributaries, etc…). I have been very encouraged about the health of the lake in recent years, but algae has not been the only problem. Remember that earthen dam built in the 1820’s? What if I told you that the last time it was replaced was in the late 1820’s (because it failed the first time they built it). What if I also told you that hundreds of homes have been built near and into the dam, many of them with basements, swimming pools, and wired utilities such as sewer, gas, and electric? Think about what that might mean. We have this 4 mile long wall of earth being pushed on by 3-12 feet of water (depending on season and lake height). This wall of earth is already somewhat porous, but luckily the water pressure isn’t super high because the lake is shallow. Now, dig a bunch of holes in the earthen wall and fill it full of heavy house that settle and then dig out the area between the houses, add utility lines, and refill. Done with that? Great. Add 150 years of erosion and you will be where we are today. The Buckeye Lake dam is on the verge of “catastrophic failure” according the the Army Corps of Engineers. As a result, the state has decided to drain the lake down to an average depth of about 3 feet until further notice.

dam failure is not a new phenomenon  (cartoonstock.com)

dam failure is not a new phenomenon

3 feet is not enough to sustain a summer boating season. The lake is dominated by small, local, family-owned businesses. Many of which will have trouble surviving one year without a season. The state has now promised to fix the dam in 5 years, with construction set to occur as early as NEXT summer. A year without a season, while not ideal, is survivable for most. But 5 years without a season will essentially spell the end of many local businesses and will put a huge dent in the economy of two counties. Many locals are very upset with the decision to keep the lake level down until the dam is fixed, citing evidence that the dam has been a known problem for since around 2000. This is true, but also very troublesome (Sadly, the newspaper articles I had saved up to cite here are no longer available online, so you will just have to take my word for all of this). The state was aware of the dam problem, but they did not install new regulations. They knew it was crumbling, but they didn’t prohibit building. Locals were aware of previous dam surveys, but weren’t overly concerned, as the state had cried wolf in the past. In end, everyone is to blame for the inaction that has lead us to this point. It’s time to stop blaming and start seeking solutions. Many Ohio residents are upset with the plan to save the lake because the state is diverting Capital Improvement money to build the dam (money that could be used to build or repair other state owned infrastructure). I get this point of view. Not everyone in the state uses the lake. In fact, probably only a small portion do. Most people use the highway system, why not put the money there? I don’t have the answer to this question. All I know is that my family lives on the lake and we love it. I’m happy it is being fixed, but I also see the other side of the coin. The state could have decided to drain the lake permanently rather than pay millions to fix the dam. In the end, I suppose they realized just how much the local economy of the Buckeye Lake areas depends on the lake (and how much tax money they can make back off of those people in the future). Could all of this have been avoided? Sure. All it would have taken was a little initiative on either end (local or state) to prevent this problem. The state could have prevented construction on the dam and the locals could have tried to petition for the dam to be replaced in sections before it fell into disrepair (for the sake of bring thorough I will mention that the dam has been patched and what not many times over the years. What I mean here is that the dam could have been replaced by a non-earthen structure many moons ago). Everyone dropped the ball and now we are all dealing the consequences. I have emailed ODNR and people in Ohio government to offer opinions and ask for the lake to be saved, but I’m not sure how to feel about this sometimes. Does the current solution save all of the lake? This entire problem is completely man made. Humans built the dam, humans didn’t properly repair the dam, etc… However, there is now a thriving and unique ecosystem behind the dam. Interestingly, a very strange and one of a kind environment exists on the lake as a result of the dam. Cranberry bog is the worlds only known floating bog (usually a bog surrounds a lake, but in this instance the lake surrounds the bog).It’s protected and even with low water levels it will be fine (it was once situated on the bottom of what is now the lake anyway). The issue here is the fish. With water levels drawn down, the lake is essentially shrinking. In fact, there are likely to be areas where the lake is turned into a series of puddles, causing populations to be cut off from one another. These shallow ponds like areas will quickly become depleted of oxygen and fish will die. The lake wouldn’t be there if not for us. The same could be said for the fish. But the current lake levels are unsustainable for the fish. Losing the fish will lead to all sorts of trophic and ecosystem service problems in the lake which I think are quite terrible. It’s hard to watch an ecosystem (man-made or not) flounder and that is exactly what I’m doing now. In my opinion, this lake is pretty natural now. It’s been around for many generations and it has a natural order and seasonal cycles. Draining it (or even keeping it low) is doing significant damage to the ecosystem. However, keeping the lake at normal summer heights could lead to loss of human life. Hundreds of people live on or behind the dam. It makes perfect sense to try to protect these people by keeping levels down. But where do we draw the line? How many human lives are worth the life of an ecosystem? It’s a hypothetical question, but one that I as a climate scientist and environmentalist face quite often. I’m sure some risk-assessor somewhere knows the answer, but I’m not comfortable settling on one. In a perfect world both the humans and the ecosystem are able to thrive. The only thing that brings me hope is that the lake will be better when the dam is rebuilt. There is significant dredge work planned (which may or may not continue at this point) to make the lake deeper (potentially helping to prevent algal blooms and to allow passage of larger vessels), local economy will likely bounce back (absence makes the heart grow fonder, right?), and eventually we will all get to enjoy the lake again. In the meantime, locals are trying to get out and support those dockside restaurants by driving to them in cars instead of boats. It’s a resilient area and I expect a full recovery, it’s just going to be a long road. For more information on this topic keep your eye on The Columbus Dispatch and The Buckeye Lake Beacon

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