COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Central Ohio's Buckeye Lake, which had been kept low because of its deteriorated dam, will be allowed to fill enough this summer to accommodate some boating and fishing, state officials said Thursday.
The gates that had been opened to keep the water low for over a year were closed Thursday morning. It's a welcome development for area businesses that suffered as low water deterred visitors, though some said it might come too late to be very helpful this season because the water rise will depend on rainfall in the hot summer months.
"We're closing the gates and praying for rain!" U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, whose district includes part of the lake, declared in a statement.
If that prayer is answered, officials intend to let the water depth increase to about 5 feet, about a foot below the usual summer level, Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle said. Low-speed boating and fishing will be allowed, but tow activities such as tubing are still off-limits.
Buckeye Lake's 4.1-mile earthen dam is nearly 180 years old and has been weakened by several hundred homes, docks and other structures built into it, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conclude that the dam was at risk of failing. A new dam is expected to be built by 2019.
Though that's a ways off, "we have cleared an enormous hurdle" in the project, ODNR Director James Zehringer said Thursday.
Workers in recent months constructed a stability berm between the dam and the water and addressed other defects in the embankment, working on a significantly accelerated timeline to allow for a higher water level by this summer. That drew praise from some residents eager to have the project done for safety's sake and groans from others upset by the construction hassles, the noise and the impact on businesses as they waited for word on what to expect.
"We're stuck not knowing how to plan for the summer, not knowing how many people to staff up, not really being able to forecast or budget," said Tracy Higginbotham, who runs Buckeye Lake Winery on the southern edge of the water. He said Thursday's announcement will be "incrementally helpful for this year," and he anticipates they'll see only a four- or six-week boating season once some rain falls.
The state offered grants and loans to help area businesses that lost revenue last year because of the low water and dam work, but Higginbotham said his losses — several hundred thousand dollars — didn't meet the percentage threshold that was set. He said he's glad officials are addressing the problems with the dam, but getting through that is a challenge.
"They're as much of a hindrance as a help right now," he said.