NEW CONCORD, Ohio (AP) — Picturesque, and at times, worrisome.
The Muskingum University dam holds back what locals call “College Lake” on the campus of the private liberal arts college. Perched directly over the inlet to the lake’s spillway is a wooden gazebo — a locally legendary fixture where many young couples have had their first date or kiss.
State inspectors want the gazebo torn down. They describe it as an obstruction that could slow the flow of water in an extreme flood, increasing the potential for the earthen dam to be overtopped and fail.
Some students and alumni disagree, and the Spoon Holder gazebo — as it’s affectionately called because of its shape — remains in place.
“It’s got that sentimental value to it that so many people don’t want to touch it,” Village Administrator Charlotte Colley said.
The Muskingum dam is among more than 100 in Ohio rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition that are classified as “high hazard” because lives could be lost if the dams fail. A two-year investigation by The Associated Press found that Ohio has the fifth highest number of such dams among the 45 states and Puerto Rico that complied with the AP’s public records requests.
The AP analysis identified more than 1,680 high-hazard dams across the United States rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition. The actual number is almost certainly higher, but some states declined to provide condition or hazard ratings for their dams while claiming exemptions to public record requests. Others simply haven’t rated all their dams due to lack of funding, staffing or authority to do so.
The AP’s database of individual dams shows hazard levels and condition ratings as of 2018. It’s possible that circumstances have changed since then.
In Ohio, the AP study found that 450 of the state’s 1,420 dams are considered high hazard. Of those, state inspectors had rated 124 in poor or unsatisfactory condition as of 2018, indicating that they needed repairs or other upgrades to be able to withstand a powerful flood. However, officials at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources say that number has been reduced to 114 with ongoing work.
Of the high hazard dams in need of safety improvements, the AP found that almost half had not prepared emergency action plans as of last year detailing how to notify and evacuate nearby residents if the dam fails. Some dam owners are being referred to the state attorney general for enforcement action.
An AP review found that state dam inspections, in most cases needed every five years, were up to date.
Unlike some states, Ohio has increased both its spending and staffing for its dam safety program. It spent $1.8 million in fiscal year 2019, compared to $1.4 million in 2010, and ranked in the nation’s top 10 for funding for inspections.
Ohio has undertaken major dam projects such as the Buckeye Lake Dam restoration, completed in 2018 after a federal study warned of a potential catastrophic failure.
Jim Zehringer, who was Natural Resources director in Republican Gov. John Kasich’s administration that ended in January, pointed with pride to the Buckeye Lake project and repair plans for 27 high-hazard dams owned by the state. The state has spent some $329 million on dam repair and replacement since 2011.
Mia Kannik, the dam safety program manager in the state Department of Natural Resources, said there have been “some issues” with the Muskingum College Dam. In addition to concerns about the gazebo, a 2017 state inspection report noted that the dam needed an emergency spillway and recommended that engineers prepare a map of the area that could be inundated if the dam fails.
Officials at the university some 70 miles (112.6 kilometers) east of Columbus say only one home sits within the dam’s inundation zone, and that the dam is being properly maintained.
Yet some students are worried that the dam could be vulnerable.
“We get a lot of flooding, and we’re concerned that the school hasn’t said anything about it,” said Sarah McElwain, a 19-year-old sophomore from Cleveland.
Kannick said the college discovered a sinkhole at the downstream end of the dam while doing weekly inspections and notified state authorities. Interim repair work to replace a section of pipe was done to reduce the risk of failure.
“They’re doing all the right things,” Kannik said of Muskingum College. “They’ve hired a very good engineer and they’re on top of it.”
Muskingum isn’t the only small Ohio college near a problematic dam.
The city of Circleville is downstream from a high-hazard, poor-condition dam at Hargus Lake in A.W. Marion State Park. If that 66-foot-tall earthen dam failed, water could surge through Ohio Christian University, the Pickaway County fairgrounds and homes and businesses in Circleville on its way to the Scioto River.
There’s an emergency action plan. Darrin Flick, director of the Pickaway County Emergency Management Agency said he’s set to notify any of Circleville’s 14,000 residents in the path of a flood through emergency alerts on their phones.
Still, neither Flick nor Kannik think there’s much chance the Hargus Lake Dam will fail. Kannik said it’s listed in poor condition because it needs work to meet higher standards for slope stability and flood containment.
“Today’s standards are different than when the dam was originally constructed,” Kannik said.
The state Department of Natural Resources put other dams it owns ahead of Hargus Lake when the state beefed up dam safety efforts at the beginning of this decade. Preliminary design work for dam upgrades has been completed, said Eric Heis, a department spokesman. The next steps are design, engineering and construction.
“Hopefully, it will be done in the next couple of years,” he said.
Sewell reported from Cincinnati. Caruso is the Columbus-based Ohio/Midwest investigations editor for GateHouse Media.