Bob Downing


The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, flush with shale money, could reduce assessments paid by 500,000 individual property owners from Akron to the Ohio River.



Action on reducing the assessments, most of which are $12 a year, is not expected until late this year or early next year. Implementing whatever plan is developed is unlikely until 2015, said John Hoopingarner, the districtís executive director-secretary.



The possibility of reduced assessments came from the districtís five-member governing board after a recent two-day planning session with staff.



How much money the district is expected to collect from leasing bonuses and drilling royalties will affect the decision, officials said.



The district is expected to update the 18-judge Conservancy Court about the possible reduction during a meeting Saturday in New Philadelphia. The court is composed of one common pleas judge from each county in the district.



Annually, the district collects about $11 million in the 18-county area along the Tuscarawas and Muskingum rivers in eastern Ohio. About 95 percent of the property owners pay the minimum yearly amount of $12 that is tacked on local property tax bills.



The assessment first was approved in August 2007. It was designed to raise $210 million over 20 years.



It affects nearly 26,000 property owners in Summit County, 136,000 in Stark and 16,000 in Wayne.



Major projects it helps to fund include repairs to the Beach City, Bolivar, Dover and Mohawk dams and the Zoar levee in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That work will cost an estimated $621 million in federal and local funds.



The Corps of Engineers manages the dams; the district oversees the reservoirs. Funds collected must be used for projects and programs that protect the 16 dams and reservoirs that were built 80 years ago for flood protection, water conservation and recreation.



Since 2011, the district has approved three leases for drillers seeking natural gas and related liquids from Ohioís Utica shale formation deep underground. The extraction process requires large volumes of water.



Those leases resulted in signing bonuses of more than $77 million.



The district recently got its first royalty payment of $750,000 from the operation of wells placed on one of the three leases.



In a related move, several Ohio eco-groups plan to make a renewed request of the Conservancy Court on Saturday: order the district to cease selling water from reservoirs to drillers for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and stop the leasing of reservoir land for drilling.



The Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water and the FreshWater Accountability Project Ohio, along with Food and Water Watch, Ohio Environmental Council, NEOGAP/POGCO and the Buckeye Forest Council will make the request.



Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.