- Associated Press - Friday, May 22, 2015

BUCKEYE LAKE, Ohio (AP) - An engineering firm that analyzed a deteriorated dam at Buckeye Lake suggested Friday that changes could be made to raise the water level and keep boats and surrounding businesses afloat without decreasing safety, though state officials have some concerns about the proposals.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report released this spring warned the nearly 180-year-old earthen dam is at risk of failing, and the state decided to keep the water level low as a precaution.

The state plans to build a new dam, with construction possibly starting next summer. Meanwhile, many locals are upset because the low water and related problems hinder boating, fishing and other water activities, thus hurting tourism and the local economy.

The local chamber of commerce sought an analysis by Pittsburgh-based Rizzo Associates, which previously evaluated the dam’s stability in 1997. The recent evaluation acknowledges concerns, such as large trees whose roots might create pathways for erosion, but found there’s no imminent threat, consultant Paul Rizzo told local business owners Friday.

He suggested the lake could safely be raised to slightly below its usual summer level if changes were made to improve the flow of excess water. Specifically, he suggested lowering a spillway wall, a process that could take months, and clearing vegetation and other obstacles from a creek.

“The takeaway here is to do something quickly to get the lake level back up to ensure commerce on this lake and still keep residents and the community safe,” said Tim Ryan, the chamber president.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which heard Rizzo’s presentation earlier this week but hasn’t received a final report, said it is concerned about downstream impact and the possibility that spillway changes would increase pressure on the dam, something Rizzo argues wouldn’t happen.

“We share the desire to get Buckeye Lake back to an active recreational pool level as soon as possible, however we cannot knowingly raise the water level without a proper plan that meets Ohio’s dam safety standards,” ODNR said in a statement.

Owners say some of their businesses, such as marinas, already have suffered. Others are bracing for a down summer and trying to avoid extra expenses or capital improvements.

“It’s survival mode,” said Buckeye Lake Winery owner Tracy Higginbotham, who’s employing 22 fewer people than last year.

He said he plans to sell his boat, too - a bit of a trend he’s noticed among people living near the lake.

The Army Corps of Engineers report traced the dam’s unusual problems back to when parts of the embankment were sold for private use more than a century ago. About 370 homes have been built into it, along with docks, patios and other modifications that weaken the structure.

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