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Cleveland Heights likely to concur with plan to remove Horseshoe Lake dam

Work on an emergency "controlled breach" at Horseshoe Lake dam will continue through the end of November. Crews from River Reach Construction started moving dirt from around the earthen dam this week, with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District expected to reimburse Shaker Heights roughly $500,000 for design and construction.Tom Jewell/Special to

Posted on November 11, 2021

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — City Council plans to move forward as early as next week on a proposed “resolution of concurrence” allowing for the removal of Horseshoe Lake dam, as recommended by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD).

The directive to the city law department came Monday (Nov. 8) during a follow-up meeting with the engineering firm council hired for $9,000 to provide a “second opinion” on the NEORSD recommendations.

That recommendation call for removing the dam, eliminating the lake and replacing it with the original Doan Brook branches and habitat restoration.

The “peer review” process also saw some alteration Monday as five sewer district officials, including CEO Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, turned out in person for the meeting with the consultants from Gannett Fleming Engineers and Architects, based in Camp Hill, Pa., appearing virtually on Zoom.

After the first Zoom meeting with Gannett Fleming Oct. 25, “the district took resident and council questions received from the city (Nov. 5),” Dreyfuss-Wells explained. “And then Gannett Fleming provided answers to our answers (Nov. 8).”

Most of those written responses from Gannett Fleming were in agreement with the district, as the consulting duo took a back seat from there.

“You have an earthen dam with a masonry spillway that has sinkholes and voids,” Dreyfuss-Wells told council. “And as the deterioration has continued, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has ratcheted up its orders.”

In 2018, ODNR, as the regulatory agency for the Class 1 dams at Horseshoe and Lower Shaker lakes, ordered that Horseshoe’s water level be lowered by 3 feet, citing the potential loss of human life in the event of failure.

The following year, ODNR ordered that Horseshoe Lake be drained completely — as it remains.

And with that dam still in an “active state of failure,” and the lake basin still filling during torrential rains, NEORSD recommended in June that it be removed, along with Horseshoe Lake.

Meanwhile, Lower Lake would be dredged and its dam rebuilt, at a total projected cost of $28.3 million.

The whole project would be funded entirely by the sewer district at no cost to the cities of Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights, which lease the parkland from the City of Cleveland.

However, any alternative proposals to keep Horseshoe Lake and dam would not be funded at all by NEORSD, which cited its recently completed three-year, $10 million Regional Stormwater Master Plan and minimal benefits to the 62 member communities with over $1 billion in project funding requests.

Temporary fix

The sewer district also plans to reimburse Shaker Heights about $500,000 in design and construction costs for an emergency “controlled breach” in a section of the dam, with work under way and expected to run through the end of November.

“But the emergency breach will not mitigate all risk,” NEORSD Director of Watershed Programs Frank Greenland said. “Make no mistake, the dam is coming down, with plans to rebuild in an environmentally friendly fashion.”

The deadline on requests for proposals for consultants to work with the sewer district on its plan is Friday (Nov. 12), with a contract expected to be awarded in March, pre-design completion in the summer of 2022, followed by detailed design, then construction bids going out in October 2023.

Shaker Heights City Council approved its “resolution of concurrence” with the NEORSD recommendations Sept. 27. Since then, sewer district officials have been pressing Cleveland Heights to do the same, in order to get all parties together in the planning and design phases.

But many residents in both cities are not on board with the proposal and continue to look for ways to “Save Horseshoe Lake,” as their yard signs attest.

The biggest concern uncovered in the Gannett Fleming assessment of the sewer district’s work so far revolves around the projected costs, most notably for sediment removal, part of the reason why the theoretical price tag comes to $20.7 million.

Up to $10 million of that could be the cost for dredging two feet of sediment from the Horseshoe Lake bed, which would take the average depth from 6 to 8 feet.

Sewer district officials noted that Horseshoe Lake “has not been dredged in recent memory,” with dredging at Green Lake done prior to the Regional Stormwater Master Plan’s completion.

While there is some dispute over the figure of $50 per cubic yard — it could be lower for clean sediment (as it appears to be) and more for higher contamination levels — Greenland said the district never wants to “lowball” projected costs on infrastructure, and contingency funds are needed, especially if construction isn’t slated until 2024.

Responding to an online question from Michael Madorsky, sewer district officials maintained that even with dredging at Horseshoe, “lake depth has nothing to do with active storage,” measured by the volume of water from the normal lake surface to the very top of the dam. Gannett Fleming agreed with this.

Greenland noted that he was pleasantly surprised by Lower Lake’s active stormwater capacity, although a new dam is needed there, as well as dredging, at a total projected cost of around $14 million. That work would begin after the Horseshoe project is completed.

As for environmental concerns cited by Noah Collin in his online questions, Greenland added that “erosion itself is a water quality issue, in terms of degrading streams.” He said restoration of the tributaries and habitat will provide overall improvement in the Doan Brook watershed.

Alternatives discussed

In a series of written questions, Councilwoman Melody Joy Hart asked about capping the earthen dam to put it back into use, rather than replacing it, and whether that might result in a lower cost.

“Existing materials (dating back to the mid-1800s, with some rebuilds and additional fortification along the way) do not meet ODNR’s current dam standards, and the entire existing earthen dam must be removed,” stated the sewer district’s written response, again with Gannett Fleming in agreement.

NEORSD Stormwater Program Manager Janet Popielski noted that while the stone spillway is the centerpiece of the structure, the whole dam is about 630 feet long.

She added that one recent case of water “overtopping” the dam occurred during very heavy storms on Labor Day 2020, when Shaker Heights recorded 4.1 inches of rain by early afternoon.

Council President Jason Stein asked Law Director Bill Hanna to draft legislation supporting the NEORSD recommendations, although Hart asked earlier if a contingency could be included to allow time to look for alternative funding for dam work at Horseshoe.

If that happened, both city and regional officials said the issue there would not only be shelving work already invested through the sewer district and its consultants, but also future maintenance costs for keeping the new dam — with no projected costs on that end.

Asked by Stein for her thoughts on the issue, Councilwoman-elect Josie Moore said that climate change has brought more rain to the region in recent decades, and that “taking issues of flood control seriously is something we have a moral imperative to do.”

Moore said she would also question a private or nonprofit entity owning public infrastructure if funds were found for a new dam.

Councilman-elect Anthony Mattox Jr. added that he would be concerned about ongoing maintenance of a new dam, as well as the issue of the sewer district proceeding with work that might be scrapped.

With that in mind, Hart said she was willing to give the requested resolution of concurrence a first reading at the Nov. 15 council meeting.


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