Harsh reality in the form of dry channels and empty boat ramps has become the norm at Buckeye Lake. Columbus television news reports have run segments showing visiting boaters struggling to launch boats at Buckeye lake ramps. However, when those visitors and reporters head home, residents of Buckeye Lake are left high and dry in homes that were once considered lakefront properties.
Reading the Ohio Department of Natural Resources press releases outlining a five year plan to build a new dam and restore the Buckeye Lake as the “gem of Central Ohio” does little to alleviate the stress.
John and Karen Santo have a home on the south side of Buckeye Lake located along what has always been a channel in the Copper Penny area. This spring their channel more resembles a potential drag strip for mud buggy races. Directly across the channel from John and Karen’s dock, a pontoon boat hangs in a boathouse ten feet above the mud.
“In five years that boat won’t be worth the straps supporting it unless he fires up the motor two or three times a month,” according to John Santo.
Boat owners had no prior warning about the situation that currently exists at the lake. In anticipation of the Corps’ report in early 2015, John Wisse, ODNR Communications Manager, says the ODNR decided a few days prior to its release to leave the lake at winter pool. However, the USACE report indicated the dam was at high risk of failure when at or above summer pool elevation. The report and the ODNR’s decision to keep the lake level at winter pool were shared publicly at that time.
Property owners with boats hanging in boathouses or slips would have needed to be contacted prior to the annual lake draw down the previous fall in order to safely remove boats. At that time there was no indication the lake would remain at the winter pool level beyond March 1.
Tim Ryan, president of the Buckeye Lake Region Chamber of Commerce, points to marina owners who have ordered inventory for the 2015 boating season. Business owners who have floor plans for the merchandise have a deadline to sell product before they must pay an interest fee. Ryan further explained that while some business losses are easily identified, others are not.
“We publish a guide for the boating season that outlines summer activities and events. Part of that guide is comprised of ads we sell to local businesses. On average we make between $5,000 to $6,000 from those ads, and every penny of that profit is donated to local charities. We won’t come close to that this year,” explained Ryan.
Wildlife at Buckeye Lake will also feel the stress of lower lake levels. One fish kill has already occurred. Fish that escaped though the gates of the dam became trapped in the stream immediately below the dam once the stream’s high water level returned to normal. Most of the dead fish appeared to be carp and gizzard shad. Once the high heat and low water team up in mid-summer, fish in the main lake will begin to be stressed. While most of the lake’s fish will be able tolerate the upcoming summer conditions, two species may not be able to do so according to Division of Wildlife fisheries biologist Marty Lundquist.
“The saugeye and hybrid striped bass will be the two species most susceptible to heat related low water conditions,” described Lundquist. Both of these gamefish have provided great fishing opportunities for Buckeye Lake anglers, but neither reproduce naturally.
John Wisse also addressed the issue of fish populations at Buckeye. “The Division of Wildlife has reduced its fish stocking at Buckeye Lake until dam comprehensive improvements are completed,” explained Wisse. He added that once the dam improvements have been completed, the Division will make a full assessment of the lake conditions and then move forward with a plan to best manage the fish populations at Buckeye Lake.
“When those decisions are made, they will be announced and shared publicly,” stated Wisse.
A new dam will allow the lake to be refilled. Fish populations can be restored. One Buckeye Lake problem has not been finalized, and it was a major issue in the March 2015 Army Corps of Engineers report. Buildings, homes, permanent docks, patios, and trees line the north and west shorelines that comprise the entire length of the 4.1 mile long dam. The Corps has emphatically stated that this is an unacceptable practice. Decisions about future constructions on the new dam have not been finalized. When these decisions are made, they will be announced and shared publicly according to Wisse. Currently, homeowners on the dam have received a letter advising them of current construction restrictions on the dam.
Perhaps the most painful news for Buckeye Lake residents and business owners has been the timeline to restore the lake to full pool. Wisse describes the 5 year time frame as the “best guess” as of April 2015. Finding a qualified engineering consultant was the ODNR’s first step. The ODNR advertisement of a Request for Qualifications had an April 10 deadline. Once the engineering firm has been secured, soil borings, property surveys, and final design will be next. Usually a 6-8 month process, the ODNR hopes to reduce the time for attaining consultant services to 2-2 ½ months.
The final design process will follow, presumably beginning early this summer. Wisse explained this is a complex step that involves some regulatory requirements. It can take 12-15 months to complete. However, the ODNR is “evaluating all options” to speed the process. That is the exact motivation behind the Buckeye Lake Region Chamber of Commerce’s decision to hire the Pittsburgh based firm Rizzo Associates to conduct their own comprehensive study on the Buckeye Lake dam.
Regardless of time frame and future decisions, a summertime Buckeye Lake at winter pool will be more than enough to discourage many visitors. For people who call Buckeye Lake home, five years rhymes with forever.