- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Work to replace the deteriorated dam at Buckeye Lake could start as early as this year with a design that Ohio officials said Thursday could accelerate the project and potentially save money.

That’s good news for area residents and businesses disappointed that the lake’s water level has been kept low as a precaution this summer. The low level limits boating and water activities, upsetting locals who say the economy and tourism there are taking a big hit.

The nearly 180-year-old earthen dam has been weakened by several hundred homes, docks and other structures built there. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded the dam is at risk of failing, and the state has been looking at ways to replace it.

Gov. John Kasich announced Thursday that officials plan to use compacted soil and cement columns to create a barrier in front of the existing 4.1-mile dam to prevent water seepage. The barrier would then become part of a new dam.

A design consultant engineer hasn’t been chosen yet.

A state budgetary panel must approve money for the project, though the current state budget allots $25 million for the dam.

Kasich said the design had been reviewed by the corps and other engineers. He pointed to pictures of the technique used at a New Orleans levee and other locations.

Estimates put the new dam costs at $150 million, though state officials said the design could result in “considerable cost savings.” No specific amount was given. The design also may allow the project to be completed ahead of an estimated five years, though no specific date was given.

Kasich was careful to set expectations for the project.

“I have to warn everybody that’s listening to this: If you’ve ever done construction, it never goes as planned,” he said.

Within the next year or so, people could see a slightly higher water level. Though Kasich said it wouldn’t be going “all the way up to what people want” due to safety risks.

Locals had urged the state to raise the water level and accelerate the construction work, supporting those pleas by pointing to the results of two reports separate from the corps’ findings.

An engineering firm that analyzed the dam for the local chamber of commerce said the water could be raised some to help keep boats and surrounding businesses afloat without decreasing safety. In June, a consultant’s report commissioned by local development economic groups estimated that keeping the water level low could put at risk up to 1,100 jobs with $160 million in income over five years, plus tens or hundreds of millions of dollars more in lost local and state taxes and economic activity.

The state has acknowledged that the low water negatively affects surrounding communities.

The state Department of Natural Resources said it has avoided draining the lake and is trying to quickly start the new dam project but couldn’t raise the water unless Ohio’s dam safety standards are met.

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