Speaking through face masks, over the roar of water pounding the concrete base of the Gorge Dam, local officials on Tuesday took the U.S. EPA on a tour of the Cuyahoga River’s next big project.
Since the creation of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2010, $6.9 million in federal grants has aided in the removal of Cuyahoga River dams in Kent, Munroe Falls and Cuyahoga Falls. To remove the Gorge Dam — the last blockage from Lake Rockwell to the Cascade Valley and up to Lake Erie — Akron and its partners will have to raise a third of the $70 million project cost, with the rest coming from federal sources.
“It’s really a collaborative,” Horrigan said, standing with Lisa King, executive director of Summit Metro Parks.
“It isn’t just us. I know Lisa has been working on it for years,” the mayor told U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “It’s been a high priority.”
King nodded in agreement.
“There’s been more movement on this project in the last three years than in the last 20,” she said. “We’re really excited.”
After the Tuesday morning tour, Wheeler stood outside the nearby Gorge Shelter — behind a microphone, between two nearby charcoal grills — and announced that his office will award Akron the first $1 million in the multi-year project to demolish the dam.
“I want to come back in 2022 when you start removing it,” said Wheeler, a Butler County native who attended Case Western University.
“Good,” Horrigan replied. “You’re invited.
The dam removal, which is estimated to cost $20 million, is scheduled to begin in late 2022 or early 2023. Permitting is scheduled for July of 2022.
First, though, Akron will put the $1 million federal grant toward designing the best way to remove nearly 900,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment that’s been settled in the lake behind the dam since it was constructed in 1911.
Akron is partnering with Cuyahoga Falls, the Friends of the Crooked River, Summit County Metro Parks and the Ohio and U.S. EPAs on the dam removal. The city has selected a site downriver at Signal Tree to permanently bury the sediment.
Public Service Director Chirs Ludle said $20 million, which includes the value of the land and in-kind services, will be invested into the property off Cuyahoga Street to prepare a pit lined with a berm and capped with dirt-covered impermeable material, like clay.
There, the sediment will be buried forever. “I don’t think you could ever build houses on it,” Ludle said of the property’s future use, “but you could put in a ballfield or hiking trails. When it’s replanted, you’ll never even know [the sediment] is there.”
To remove and transport the sediment, a $30 million pumping system with multiple pipes would be designed and installed from the top of the dam to the storage site. Only after the sludge is moved can the dam come down.
“It’s a long-term project, and we’ve already done a lot to restore this river,” said Wheeler, who could think of no better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. EPA than to dedicate $1 million to the river that caught fire in 1968, prompting the creation of his agency.
The dam’s removal will lower the water level 50 feet, exposing the rocks and rapids that gave Cuyahoga Falls its name nearly 200 years ago.
“Eliminating this dam will link the upper gorge with the rapids below and it will create 2½ miles of whitewater canoe and kayaking, which will be one of the best urban waterways and whitewater in the world,” Wheeler said.
Horrigan tied the river project to federally mandated efforts to reconstruct and separate Akron’s system for sewage and rainwater. The $1.1 billion project is designed to prevent contamination of the river and Lake Erie during normal rain events.
Lobbying a federal judge who will have the final say, the mayor reiterated that overseeing removal of the dam, which experts say will improve the ecology and health of the river, will be part of an offer to amend the federal consent governing the sewer project. If approved, this third amendment would eliminate a massive Northside Interceptor Tunnel project, saving sewer customers $28 million, and a high-rate treatment facility, which Horrigan said would provide “only slight improvement in water quality with an astronomical cost of $65 million.”