Plan to remove dams flowing

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Posted April 8, 2019

WARREN — The plan to remove dams from the Mahoning River is taking off, and officials say once they are gone, the river will continue healing from years of industrial use, the area will see recreational use increase and economic development will be spurred.

The estimated cost to remove nine dams from the river, after dredging behind them, is about $20 million, but local communities aren’t expected to carry the burden.

The plan to remove the dams is being orchestrated through the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments and the communities they are in. They will mostly be removed from downstream to upstream.

Funding already has been secured to remove the dams in Lowellville and Struthers, and Joann Esenwein, the planning director for Eastgate, said funding to remove dams in Campbell, Youngstown, Girard, McDonald, Niles, Warren and Leavittsburg is likely to be secured as well because the project is gaining steam.

The dams were originally put in place to pool water to cool off industrial operations along the river and the companies using them drew so much water from them in the industrial heyday of the Mahoning Valley, the water at times wasn’t even cold enough to do the job, said Jim Kinnick, director of Eastgate. The practice left the river polluted, scaring off wildlife and recreational users.

“The process left the river full of toxins. You could have lit it on fire — at times it was 110 degrees,” Kinnick said.

But, as the industrial use petered off, the river slowly began to clean itself, Esenwein said.

That’s good news for people who want to see the dams removed because the amount of environmental cleanup in the form of dredging won’t be as expensive as it it would have been years ago, Esenwein said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once estimated the cost to clean up the river and remove the dams to be about $100 million, she said.

After the dams are removed, the river will continue the natural healing process, Kinnick said.

“The levels of toxins are already coming down. We could wait another 20 years for it to return to a natural, free-flowing state, or we can take down the dams, after dredging, and speed up the process,” Kinnick said.

And, at least in Trumbull County, sanitary sewer projects near the river in Leavittsburg will further ensure fewer septic systems will drain into the river by 2025, around the time the dam there is expected to be removed, said Gary Newbrough, Trumbull County deputy sanitary engineer.

By going through Eastgate, the communities aren’t competing from the same funds offered through the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, but instead are building up incentive to complete the project with the agency. The project was first proposed by the Mahoning River Mayors’ Association in 2012 in an effort to encourage growth around the river.

“The EPA wants to see it is a priority for the area. When the communities’ leaders work together, they take notice,” Kinnick said.

The dam in Girard is likely to be skipped as dams south of it and north of it are removed because it is quite large and still being used, Kinnick said. Just last week, McDonald Mayor Glen Puckett said he and Girard Mayor James Melfi met with officials from McDonald Steel about keeping the dam owned by the company in place.

Eastgate is working with leaders and dam owners to secure the rights to remove the dams, which are owned by various people and entities.

The dams don’t only slow the river from healing, but create dangerous situations for people trying to navigate the river for recreational use, Esenwein said. Now, kayakers who want to traverse the 26-mile portion the dams span have to get out of the river before the dams and relaunch downstream of them. The Mahoning River is part of the Ohio River watershed, which ends in Pennsylvania after joining the Shenango River and Beaver River.

“Removing the dams will certainly make the river more paddle-able,” said Zachary Svette, executive director of Trumbull County MetroParks.

Beth Carmichael, executive director of the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau, said the project signals tourism growth for the county.

“We’re excited with the possibility of dam removal. It allows our communities to take advantage of this under-utilized asset. A more navigable Mahoning River creates a major tourism connection for us. The river provides a peaceful setting, recreational activities, a sense of adventure and heritage, and links closely with our other outdoor assets in Trumbull County,” Carmichael said. “In 2018, we welcomed Mahoning River Adventures, kayak outfitters, to Canoe City in Leavittsburg, which is part of our Trumbull MetroParks system. This addition has brought new visitors from across the region and state to explore the river along with other stops throughout our county.”