Ohio Dams: Danger in the Water

All across Ohio, dams are getting attention.

The Mahoning River. Dams and years of toxicity following the mass mill exodus of the 1980s had made this river toxic. Image obtained from The Business Journal.2

A dam is a manmade or animal-made structure that alters the flow or level of water. Often dams are used for a human purpose: to gather electrical power. Recently, however, dams have been doing much more and effecting humans, wildlife and habitats in different ways. These ways, as scientists and researchers are beginning to discover, are for the worse. New dams could be different story, but older dams are continuing to cause more and more trouble.

However, there is hope. Dam removal may be the key to environmental success in a certain Ohio river

This river runs through my own hometown, Niles, Ohio. The river: The Mahoning River. It stretches through Warren all the way to New Castle, Pennsylvania and runs 113 miles.2

Journalist Dan O’Brien of Youngstown’s The Business Journal investigated the river’s history.2 He describes in his article, “…dominated by steel interests… Once those mills fell silent during the late 1970s and 1980s, the environmental damage left behind was staggering…”.2 This environmental damage has, unfortunately, become a characteristic of the river and is devastating to the community.

As a resident, I know this is true. My family and all the others in the community were and still are unable to enjoy a true, healthy river. My mom would always say, “Oh honey, we can’t swim there…that river is disgusting!”. Decades of contamination and toxification have made it unfit for human usage.

But how?

Well, it’s actually a perfect storm. The mills’ toxic wastes, including an estimated daily 400,000 pounds of suspended solids, 70,000 pounds of oil and grease, 9,000 pounds of ammonia-nitrogen, 500 pounds of cyanide, 600 pounds of phenols, and 800 pounds of zinc, all combined with the river dams’ improper and restricted effects on water flow have turned what could be a natural beauty into the tri-county health hazard.2

How will the communities fix such a problem?

The first step, according to O’Brien, is the dam removal. He proclaims,” Removal of [the Lowellville Dam] and eight others along the Mahoning River are the most critical and costly components to cleaning the waterway. The Lowellville project could cost about $2.3 million”.2

O’Brian also cites the return of flowing water as a natural method of removing toxins, stating, “it restores a free-flowing river that would reinvigorate the natural habitat, inviting fish, avian and other aquatic species back to the waterway”. 2

The Mahoning River is seeing some improvement after decades of water toxicity, however, the president and CEO of the Warren/Youngstown Regional Chamber, James Dignan, traveled to Washington D.C. on June 20th of this year to fight for more funding on behalf of the river clean up and dam removal. 2

The Mahoning River however, is just one Ohio river that will hopefully benefit from the removal of a dangerous dam.

The removal of the Gorge Dam on the Cuyahoga River should also help the habitat and human safety.1

This removal, which would affect mainly the lands and waters between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, will also bring health to its whole river system.1 As of March 9th 2016, the dam removal approval was made public and is scheduled to take place in 2019.1 As significant as the removal of Mahoning River dams, the Gorge Dam removal is predicted to contribute to the clean-up of 43 contaminated spots throughout the Great Lakes, according to the Ohio EPA. 1

The Gorge Dam along the Cuyahoga River. This dam is set up for removal. Image obtained from the Akron Beacon Journal.1

However, there is one challenge to be faced before this dam is destroyed. According to Bob Downing’s article in the Akron Beacon Journal, Bill Zawiski of the Ohio EPA claims that the removal of sediments – “830,000 cubic yards, enough to fill the old Akron Rubber Bowl from floor to top four times” – must be removed before the dam can be destroyed.1 The build-up these sediments is almost undoubtedly caused be the dam itself. Plans for sediment removal are still tentative, but the overall process of removing this dam will continue through a collaboration of state and federal efforts.

Likewise, another Ohio river will be subject to a dam removal, and for a more unique reason.

The Tait Station Low Dam on the Great Miami River. This dam is also scheduled for removal. Image obtained from the Dayton Daily News.3 Photograph by Chris Stewart.3

The Tait Station Low Dam on the Great Miami River in southwestern Ohio is also getting removed mainly due to the danger it poses for aquatic recreation.3 In Chris Stewart’s Dayton Daily News article, Sarah Hippensteel of the Miami Conservancy District (MCD) states,” “Removing Tait Station Low Dam is a real positive for the paddling community… Boaters can be trapped at low dams and drown. Now, people will be able to more safely enjoy this section of the river.”3 This dam removal is predicted to cost $1.75 million, which is actually smaller compared to other dam removals ($12.5 million for the Cuyahoga Gorge Dam1).3 Stewart notes that while the dam is low, it’s removal “should also improve habitat for fish, insects and birds along the river”.3 The removal of this dam is expected to have a great impact of both humans and both the local terrestrial and aquatic life. Boaters in the Dayton will finally be able to enjoy their river without fear while also assisting local fisheries and wildlife!

As anyone can now see, the dangers of dams can be vast. While harming fisheries and wildlife, they can also be a major danger to human health and wellbeing. It should come as no surprise if dam removals along Ohio rivers and watersheds become increasingly frequent.


1 Downing, Bob. “Gorge Dam Removal on Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls Is Moving Forward with Federal Blessing.” Www.ohio.com, Akron Beacon Journal, 9 Mar. 2016, www.ohio.com/akron/news/gorge-dam-removal-on-cuyahoga-river-between-akron-and-cuyahoga-falls-is-moving-forward-with-federal-blessing.

2 O’Brien, Dan. “Mahoning River Slowly Scrubs Its Contaminant.” Business Journal Daily, The Business Journal , 8 June 2018, businessjournaldaily.com/mahoning-river-reclaims-past-life/.

3 Stewart, Chris. “A Dam Removal Is the Latest Project to Make the Great Miami River Safer: What’s Really Going on?” My Dayton Daily News, Dayton Daily News, 30 May 2018, www.mydaytondailynews.com/news/dam-removal-the-latest-project-make-the-great-miami-river-safer-what-really-going/uxuWpVt46nLiFUvWGXCf7H/.

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