One notch to natural: Removal of Ballville Dam under way; to be done in September

A view of Ballville Dam taken Sept. 13 by Christina Kuchle, northwest region scenic river manager, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Watercraft.

Mother Nature is getting 22 more miles of free-flowing Sandusky River and Seneca County residents can look forward to better fishing and river recreation as the process of removing Fremont’s Ballville Dam is under way.

Dam removal has been controversial for several years as Fremont residents, Fremont officials, wildlife conservation organizations, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have had differing opinions on its fate.

Some of the concern arose around water quality impacts of releasing 100 years of built-up sediment behind the dam.

After a long legal process — which included environmental impact statements, lawsuits, controversy among Fremont city officials and a ballot issue in 2015 in which voters approved the removal — an agreement was reached between proponents and opponents to mitigate the impact of releasing the sediment.

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service approved the mitigation agreement and the $1.6 million project got under way. Much of the funding is from a USFWS grant.

Large equipment grinds a notch into the top of the dam.

A 20-foot-wide by 10-foot-deep notch was cut in the top of the 104-year-old dam Sept. 13, which is the first step toward complete removal in September 2018, said Mike Wilkerson, fish management supervisor at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources District 2 office.

“It lets us control how much water is released whenever the water comes up,” he said.

With that water comes sediment from the lake-like environment behind the dam.

“It slowly releases all that stuff over time so the habitat won’t be affected,” he said.

If the sediment was released all at one time, he said it would “embed” all the existing fish spawning habitat downstream in Fremont and beyond, and adversely affect fish spawning already taking place.

One of 11,300 mussels removed from the mud near the dam and placed in new homes at Wolf Creek Park. The process took five days to complete.

He said the sediment is a collection of topsoil from farm fields, bank erosion and “things that go on normally.”

Next September, contractors hired by the city of Fremont are to complete structure removal.

Wilkerson said the removal process was started because the city had to make a decision.

“It was an aging structure and they had to repair it to get it up to code or remove it,” he said. “The cost of repairing it was astronomical compared to the cost of removing it.”

In a recommendation for dam removal on the USFWS website, information states Ballville Dam was built on the Sandusky River in 1913 for hydroelectric power generation by Fremont Power and Light Co., which later became Ohio Power Co.

Four species of mussels found in the mud near the dam. Kuchle said they are difficult to distinguish from the shape of their shells. While shapes are similar, the life cycle of each mussel species is different. Most species of mussels are dependent on specific fish hosts to reproduce.

The dam is 407 feet long and about 34 feet high, and impounds a section of the river upstream for about 2 miles with a surface area of 89 acres.

The city of Fremont bought the land and facilities in 1959 and repurposed the dam to provide the city’s water supply. Since then, the impounded area has been used as a source of public water.

However, the website said deterioration of the dam and associated sea wall has been noted in inspections beginning in 1980, and the last known maintenance was performed on the structure in 1969.

In February 2008, the website said the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency notified the city of “numerous” Ohio Administrative Code rule violations related to the operation of the public water system. To address the problems, an off-river water storage facility was constructed and became operational in February 2013.

After removal is complete, Wilkerson said the unnatural section of the river will begin reverting to its natural state.

“The dam disconnects two parts of the river,” he said. “Fish can’t get upstream.”

He said walleye, a variety of other fish — and he hopes lake sturgeon in the future — will have 22 miles more of spawning habitat between Fremont and Tiffin.

In sections of the river away from the dam, Wilkerson said, the Sandusky River is in good health, and is home to all six species of redhorse sucker, including the river redhorse which is on the state’s endangered species list.

“The dissolved oxygen levels and fish species are good,” he said. “But that stretch of the river is much reduced from other areas, so that will change.”

Wilkerson said the removal will be similar to the St. Johns Dam removal south of Tiffin on CR 6 in November 2003.

“But on a much larger scale, obviously,” he said. “There was some sediment there, but not anywhere in the same quantities.

“The water quality got better post removal,” he said.

Wilkerson said it’s difficult to estimate the amount of time it will take before walleye and other species begin spawning between Fremont and Tiffin.

“I would say three to 10 years,” he said. “Some of them will start to wander upstream. It will take some time because they haven’t used it in the last 100 years.”

However, he said ODNR already knows spawning habitat exists because of a study conducted around 2000.

“We moved several thousand fish over a couple years upstream,” he said. “We released them upstream and monitored the water afterwards.”

He said the study found young fish had hatched.

“That was part of this process,” he said. “More than 25 years it’s been going on, so it’s been a long process.”

In addition to the dam removal, Wilkerson said the project includes seeding and stabilizing riverbanks, and constructing an ice-control barrier to protect downtown Fremont from ice jams after the dam is gone.

Other parts of the project include creating 16.5 acres of new wetlands and preservation of the 25-acre Brady’s Island with a conservation easement.

In spring 2019, Wilkerson said, ODNR is to conduct a three-year study to monitor river changes.

Pre-removal monitoring has been under way for several years.

“As part of the permitting process, the city had to hired somebody to move those mussels that would be dewatered,” he said.

Christina Kuchle, northwest region scenic river manager, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Watercraft, said she was part of the mussel-relocation project.

She said 14 species and 11,300 individual mussels were moved to a protected piece of wetland property in Wolf Creek Park on the Sandusky River owned by Sandusky County Park District.

“We placed them in the various habitats they needed, similar habitat from the area where they were removed,” she said. “If they were in a pool in the river, they were placed in a similar pool around Wolf Creek.”

Kuchle said she looks forward to greater recreational use of the river.

“Once the whole structure comes out, I really think it’s going to have a positive impact in the long term,” she said. “It’ll become more shallow behind the dam, more to a flowing environment than the lake behind the dam.”

She said she expects better fishing and canoeing.

“It’s going to enable more padding opportunities,” she said. “We might be able to plan some Paddle Ohio floats. It’s a really pretty area there right behind the dam.”