Decades Of Development To Blame For Dam Compromise
Ohio officials are determining how they’ll fix what federal officials call a structurally unsound dam at Buckeye Lake. Development on the earthen dam is partly to blame, and it seems there was little oversight on construction for decades.
Buckeye Lake has almost always had homes, hotels and boat docks built around it. It has served as a place of recreation and respite for Ohioans, from the days of fishing shacks in the early 1900s to an amusement park in the 50s to boating and tourism today.
But The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the lake’s earthen dam is on the brink of catastrophic failure, in part, due to decades of development.
“I think everybody knew it was coming,” J-me Braig, Buckeye Lake Historical Society director, said.
Braig lives in a house on the dam, and her family has lived on the lake for three generations. She said the development was ignited in the early 1900s when the first homes – fishing shacks – were built.
“They’d tear down the fishing shack and build something up a little bit better, and next generation, or they’d sell it,” she said. “And somebody would come and tear that one down. And so it was an on-going process.”
The dam is an earthen mound. It’’s not a concrete structure. It’s about four miles long and at most 15 feet tall. Braig said Buckeye Lake began as a reservoir for the Ohio Eric Canal in 1823.
“They came in and they dug dirt out of the lake and threw it up on the shoreline, and they dug dirt from behind and threw it up,” Braig siad. “And that’s how they created the dam because the north side of the Buckeye Lake was lower than the south side. So that’s what they had to do. That’s how it started.”
Braig said Buckeye Lake became a state lake in 1947.
“I suppose in hindsight if you had looked back when it became a state lake they would have stopped the building,” she said. “And at that point they would’ve said, you know, houses that are here are grandfathered in or something, but no more building on the lake. But that didn’t happen.”
And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found development has significantly compromised the dam’s structural integrity Parts of the dam have been dug away for pools, drainage and infrastructure.
So how did this happen? The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which owns the dam, declined to be interviewed for this story, only releasing a statement that it operates and maintains the dam.
Village of Buckeye Lake Mayor Clay Carroll has lived at the lake most of his life. Carroll said he’s unsure about building regulations for the dam.
“None that I know of. There probably are, but I’m just not aware of them,” Carroll said. “If you’re in the village there are building regulation in general, not just relating to the dam. When you get outside the village I think there’s an area where there’s no requirements.”
But historian Braig insists there are regulations.
“If you’re on the earthen dam that, you know, you can’t cut into the dam, you can’t build your house so far set back, those types of things. But, you know, not everybody follows regulations.”
At this time, it’s unknown who is responsible for overseeing enforcement of any regulations.
The state said many private parcels exist on the dam today. ODNR said it will pay for any costs of repairs.