The Gorge Dam’s long life on the Cuyahoga River may soon end

By Felicia Guadagni, Gabrielle Payne & Lauren Blue

The Gorge Dam is a steadfast structure on the Cuyahoga River, standing in the same spot for more than 100 years. But its long life may soon come to an end.

The dam, which is situated near the mouth of The Gorge MetroPark, was first built in 1913 as a source of hydroelectric power for a nearby plant and was later used as a cooling water storage pool for a coal-fired plant. According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Feasibility Analysis for the Removal of the Gorge Dam, the dam has not been a source of power since 1992, but it has been the cause of water quality problems in the Cuyahoga River.

Bill Zawiski of the Ohio EPA is no stranger to dam restoration and removal projects. He works specifically in the division of surface water at the agency. Zawiski, whose interview was monitored by Ohio EPA’s Public Information Officer Linda Amer, said this dam removal is both the quickest and most effective way to restore the water quality and wildlife habitats in this particular area of the river.gorge-dam-history-timeline

“Dams can cause dissolved oxygen in the water and alter the habitat of fish species,” said Zawiski. “You wouldn’t think a fish having too much water would be a bad thing, but if you’re a little fish called a darter, which likes to move around aerated rocks, putting 40 feet of water on that darter’s head makes him an unhappy fish.”

Anne Jefferson, associate geology professor at Kent State University, expanded on the necessity to remove the Gorge Dam because it no longer serves any benefit to the community and could pose a safety hazard if left alone indefinitely.

While there aren’t any formal plans established to remove the dam, Zawiski explained that the agency is currently working through the U.S. EPA’s application process in the hopes that the two agencies can eventually sign a project agreement to remove the 57-foot high, 450-foot wide dam from the river.

The U.S. EPA has agreed to pay 65 percent of the estimated $70 million cost of removing the dam’s structure and removing the sediment behind the dam, which is the most expensive aspect of the project. Zawiski said historically, uncovered costs have been paid by taxpayer’s dollars, private funding, and other fundraising methods. He also described the possibility of using “in-kind” costs to cover the other 35 percent of the Gorge Dam project. This method allows for the sediment to be dredged and sent to someone’s property where it could be properly managed, instead of carting it off to a landfill. In that case, the charge associated with disposing the sediment in a landfill could be taken out of the equation and substantially bring down the overall cost.

“When you’re looking at 830,000 cubic yards [of sediment] and maybe $15 or more per ton to dispose at a landfill, immediately you do the math and you’re at $16 million,” said Zawiski.

The sediment removal may prove to be one of the most difficult obstacles presented in this possible project. Jefferson explained that the sediment behind the Gorge Dam has a low level of contamination which requires engineered methods to remove.

“That contamination means they can’t allow the sediment to blow out and move downstream, which is the cheapest way to do a dam removal,” said Jefferson.

Gordon Grant of the USDA Forest Service.
Gordon Grant of the USDA Forest Service.

Gordon Grant, research hydrologist with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Services, echoed the potential issues associated with contaminated sediment in dam removals. However, Grant highlighted the process of removing the sediment and figuring out a way to store it is the only potential problem associated with these types of dam removals.

“Every dam removal is different and they all have surprises, so you have to be somewhat prepared for that,” explained Grant. “But if you take the sediment out of the equation by physically removing it, in terms of a dramatic catastrophe, you’ve kind of defanged the river from anything that could go wrong.”

Another question surrounding this project is the actual owner of the Gorge Dam. Nathan Eppink, chief of community engagement for Summit Metro Parks, explained that the subject of ownership has been disputed over the years and is still unknown. Although the sole owner has yet to be identified, all of the dam’s possible owners have formed a group of stakeholders that are working together toward the common goal of its removal.

“We’ve formed a group of stakeholders—including the Ohio EPA, City of Akron, City of Cuyahoga Falls, County of Summit, FirstEnergy, Senator Frank LaRose and Summit County Councilwoman Elizabeth Walters—that will regularly meet to discuss the project,” said Eppink. “All of the stakeholders want to see it come down. That’s why we’re working collaboratively.”


Facts on the Gorge Dam
Facts on the Gorge Dam

Beyond environmental and ecological benefits of removing the Gorge Dam, possible recreational gains may also come as a result. Zawiski explained the excitement among whitewater kayakers because removing the dam could open up a couple of miles of potentially classified kayaking stream.

“They’ve been told it could be an Olympic quality kayak run,” said Zawiski. “The fall of the Cuyahoga River from Cuyahoga Falls at the start down to the base is actually higher than Niagara Falls, but you wouldn’t think that because it’s over a distance.”

Zawiski said there is some slight pushback toward the progression of the removal from some fishermen in the area and a small group of engineers that appreciate the architectural structure of the dam. He also says he acknowledges that some people always question how state and federal government spends money, but said as a person in Ohio, he’s happier if the money is spent here than in Michigan.

“Both the President and Congress value the Great Lakes,” said Zawiski. “If they value it, we [Ohio EPA] value it. So, please spend your money in Ohio!”

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