CUYAHOGA FALLS: The city hopes to celebrate its bicentennial next summer with a sight unseen since the year the town was founded: the whitewater of a free-flowing Cuyahoga River.
Officials say the removal of two downtown dams not only will improve the habitat for plants and wildlife, but also will create new recreational opportunities, including Class 4 and 5 rapids for kayakers, better water quality for fishing and swimming, and maybe even a zipline to give daredevils a bird’s-eye view of the natural treasure.
City Engineer Tony Demasi said crews could begin work in June on the doomed dams, the “Powerhouse Dam” behind Samira’s Restaurant and the “Mill Dam” behind the Sheraton Suites hotel. The $1 million project will be paid for by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, through its Water Resource Restoration program.
The idea of removing the dams surfaced in 2007, when the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency approached the city, wanting to build on successful dam-modification projects in Kent and Munroe Falls.
Mayor Don Robart said he was apprehensive at first, “fearful that some business along the river would perhaps see a negative side to it.”
But once questions were answered, the business community supported the idea, as did more than 100 residents and nature-lovers who attended a town meeting earlier this year, Robart said.
“The amount of excitement in the room, the energy, convinced me we’re on the right track,” he said.
Early settlers to the area began building dams on this part of the river in 1812, using the fast-moving water to generate power to cut lumber, make paper and mill flour. By 1881, Cuyahoga Falls was home to five dams, Demasi said.
The famous flood of 1913, known for destroying much of the Ohio & Erie Canal, also wrecked the dams. But a year later, the two existing dams replaced them. The Powerhouse Dam supplied power to the Walsh Paper Co.; the Mill Dam supported the Vaughn Machinery Co., manufacturer of steel, rubber, copper and clay products.
The 85-mile horseshoe-shaped river, which eventually empties into Lake Erie, became one of the most polluted in the nation, earning fame for catching on fire in 1969.
Dams have played a role in damaging the natural resource. They collect sediment behind their walls, create pools of stagnant water, impede the migration of fish and alter the natural width, depth and flow of the river.
Once the dams in Cuyahoga Falls are removed, the river will become more narrow and shallow as the water flows unimpeded through a natural bedrock trench, revealing rocky banks.
“We’ll take a step back and see what happens,” Demasi said, but if the stream banks struggle to grow, “we can provide assistance.”
Demasi said there are a handful of adventurous kayakers who already sail down the Cuyahoga, their vessels leaping over the dams. Removing the dams will only enhance and expand the length of the rapids, possibly creating a tourist draw.
Most whitewater attractions throughout the country are in rural areas. It’s a rare thing to find raging waters through the heart of a city the size of Cuyahoga Falls, with a population of more than 50,000.
Not surprisingly, the mayor sees dollar signs before his eyes.
“There are opportunities for economic development,” he said. “The city could view the river as more of an attraction than in the past, but it’s still untapped and we’re not sure where we can go. Groups are working on analyzing it.”
While Robart is eager for the dams to be gone, the timing of their removal is a concern.
The city will be celebrating its 200th anniversary throughout 2012, with numerous summer activities planned for along the river. Also, the Sheraton hosts many wedding parties who enjoy taking pictures with the river in the background. The sight and sound of cranes could put a damper on such festivities.
However, “on a grand scale, our concerns are relatively minor,” Robart said.
Removing the dams would continue an effort that began in nearby Kent more than a decade ago.
In 1998, the Ohio EPA approached the city about its own dam, but unlike with Cuyahoga Falls, the suggestion was greeted with much trepidation.
The Kent Dam has been a historic icon since 1836, its hand-cut sandstone blocks stacked 14 feet high and 125 feet long in the shape of an arch. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, and its associated waterfall has been the backdrop of family photos and community events for generations.
“Kent was the hardest fought,” said Elaine Marsh, a founding member of Friends of the Crooked River, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that formed to “give the river a voice.”
In 2002, a community committee suggested saving the structure and pumping river water over it to keep the waterfall functional but creating a channel that would allow the river to bypass it. The drained dam pool was filled in and turned into Heritage Park.
The project cost $5 million and was finished in 2004.
“Not only did the fears not materialize, all of the benefits became immediately apparent,” Marsh said. “It [has been] easier to take other dams out since then.”
The following year, a dam in neighboring Munroe Falls was removed, effectively eliminating a 5-mile-long dam pool that extended upriver into Kent.
The Ohio EPA reported that the work in Kent and Munroe Falls led to “rapid improvement” in biological water quality, habitat and restoration of healthy oxygen levels.
Marsh praised Cuyahoga Falls officials for being the next to step up.
“Once the river finds itself again, it will be more interesting and more beautiful, and I believe the city of Cuyahoga Falls will benefit tremendously from that aesthetic,” she said.
In Cuyahoga Falls, there is no emotional attachment to its two dams.
If anything, there is a vested interest in seeing a third dam removed. A 68-foot-tall feature located in the Gorge Metro Park was built in 1912 to generate electricity for trolley cars, with the reservoir providing cooling water for the long-closed coal-fired Gorge Power Plant.
Removing that dam would allow the water level near the Sheraton to drop far enough to expose the natural water falls for which the city was named.
The Ohio EPA has been pushing for removal of the dam. Akron’s FirstEnergy Corp. has said it would like to see the dam used for environmentally friendly power but is willing to go along with removal if the Ohio EPA decides the dam must go.
Preparing a feasibility study on removing the dam could cost about $500,000, and federal funds could cover that cost. Removal of the dam has been estimated to cost $5 million to $10 million, and removal and disposing of the sediment at the bottom of the 1.5-mile-long reservoir could cost up to $20 million.
“It would be nice to have the original falls back,” Robart said.
Gary Whidden is among area residents who are thrilled about a dam-less future.
In the past six years, Whidden has taken dozens of officials and policy-makers down the river and into the Gorge on his kayak, beneath 100 foot cliffs that offer a perspective few modern people have experienced.
“It’s a hidden asset that’s been buried for so long,” he said. “You have to remember people haven’t been able to get into that area on the water in 100 years.”
At the age of 73, he won’t be among those waiting in line to tackle the newly formed rapids.
“It’s too dangerous for me,” he said with a laugh.
But not for David Hill, who knows very well the twists and turns of the Cuyahoga River as conservation chairman of the Keelhaulers Canoe Club and a member of American Whitewater.
“The water in the area of the Sheraton is powerful,” said Hill, who added there will be a need for educational programs for inexperienced paddlers wanting to navigate the rushing waters.
For those with the experience, however, a restored Cuyahoga River, with a 250-foot drop over nearly three miles, will be an adventure.
Hill said he sees lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs to take his money, as well as that of other outdoor enthusiasts who come to the river.
“It’s off Route 8, so it is easy and quick to access. West Virginia [whitewater] is five hours away. You might see new businesses open, and people who would not normally visit the area coming to use the river,” he said.
Visitors can make the most of their stay by adding a hike through the Gorge Metro Park, attending Rockin’ on the River concerts or visiting one of the many festivals along the riverfront.
Hill does see one downside to all the new attention on his beloved river: “Our playground could become crowded.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.