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The Unexpected Consequences Of Cuyahoga River Dams

An excavator demolishes a concrete dam.
Mark Urycki
The Sheraton Dam in Cuyahoga Falls being torn down in 2013.

The fourth annual Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race takes place Saturday. Such an event is only possible because in 2013, the city and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency removed two dams on the Cuyahoga River to improve the health of the river.

Such removals have made a difference, notably where this race begins.

The biggest white water rapids in the Cuyahoga Falls race are right downtown in the shadow of the Sheraton Suites Hotel, which allows fans to walk on its rock ledge and watch kayakers go by. Race Coordinator Don Howdyshell is surprised at how popular the race has already become with competitors from 15 states.   

A kayaker going over a fall.
Mark Urycki
A kayaker goes over a fall in the rapids downstream of what was once the Sheraton dam.

“The farthest person we’ve had travel by car is from Maine, maybe even Alabama,” he said. “We did have a gentleman fly in from Washington state as well.”

The idea of removing dams surfaced back in the mid-’90s and recreation was not the primary objective.

The co-founder of Friends of the Crooked River, Elaine Marsh, said the Ohio EPA was studying the middle Cuyahoga, the portion between Kent and Cuyahoga Falls. The agency found that major point sources of pollution from sewage plants and industry had been cleaned up, but the river wasn’t as healthy as expected.

“It was not meeting the standards for aquatic life and most of the discharges in the area were pretty good!” Marsh explained. “So they were wondering what was causing that, and the outcome of that study said the major cause of why the fish weren’t healthy was dams.”

As Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters learned, the pools that form from water backed up behind a dam are not healthy.

The dam pool backed up behind the Kent dam in 2000.
Ohio EPA
The dam pool backed up behind the Kent dam in 2000

“Obviously stagnant water is never good,” Walters said. “The sediment will drop out which hurts the wildlife and all the breeding grounds but also, the water has to flow as nature intended to get oxygenated. That was not happening.”


The Kent Dam

The James Gang album cover with band members standing in front of the Kent dam.
The old Kent dam was favorite backdrop for photos like those on the first James Gang album released in 1969.

After its study results, the EPA decided the historic arc-shaped Kent Dam, built in 1836 to power local mills, would have to come down. The agency made an offer the city couldn’t refuse, and it was up to Robert Brown, as then-Manager of the Kent Dam Project to make it happen. But the project wasn’t without controversy.

“Kent, being the unique town that it is, has a very strong environmental presence,” he recalled, standing next to the remnants of the old dam, “but we also had a very strong historical presence.

“And a lot of people who have grown up in Kent their entire lives – they spent a lot of time around the Kent Dam as kids — and they didn’t want to see anything change down here. So were learned very early on there was going to be two opposing forces here: the historians vs. the environmentalists.”

Many Kent residents were relunctant to give up the 1836 arc-shaped dam. [Robert Brown]

That battle went on for years until a compromise was reached: leave some of the dam as a water park and open up a side channel to let the river run free. 

In 2005, the Kent Dam became one of the first in the country to be torn down to meet the Clean Water Act. Almost immediately the water level dropped more than 10 feet.

The Kent dam remains as a powered waterfall and park while the river ran free on its eastern edge.
Christine Craycroft
Portage County Park District
The Kent dam remains as a powered waterfall and park while the river ran free on its eastern edge.

The Ohio EPA’s Kurt Princic said it worked.

“Immediate difference. It was pretty remarkable,” Princic said. “We had our staff out there within six months to a year after the dam was removed. We did our investigation into the biology of the former dam pool and showed that it was meeting our warm water criteria.”

The old arc-shaped Kent dam is part of a park (left) while the river flows through a channel once used for the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal.
Mark Urycki
The old arc-shaped Kent dam is part of a park (left) while the river flows through a channel once used for the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal.

In other words, the river was meeting clean water standards and more desirable fish began to return.

“We had northern pike and small mouth bass had come back to that dam pool that was dominated by catfish and carp.” 

Shortly after, downstream at about mile 50 on the 100 mile Cuyahoga, the Munroe Falls dam was torn down with similar water improvements.

An excavator on the river bank begins to dismantle Munroe Falls dam.
Ohio EPA
Beginning to take down the Munroe Falls dam in 2005. It was holding back a large lake of water.

Those removals may have led to other benefits.

Brown said the Kent dam pool no longer smelled in the summer and several Kentites believe it may have helped kick off a redevelopment boom in downtown Kent.

Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters also noted an improvement in his city. It now has kayak rentals at its Water Works Park and will have inner tube rentals starting this summer.

“Prior to the dams coming down, we never really had a travel and tourism piece here. In fact, we don’t have a travel and tourism director. I’ll be that person,” Walters said.

Kayak racer and Falls native Don Howdyshell also sees the attraction of a newly cleaned river.

“You can see down six feet in some of these areas very clearly. You can see all the way down to the river bottom, you can see fish swimming around and it’s great,” Howdyshell said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that there are so many new buildings being put up here to embrace the river.

The Brecksville Low-Head Dam

Since 2005 four dams on the Cuyahoga River have come down. There are two more to go, with one scheduled for the jackhammer this summer.

The Canal Diversion Dam, or Brecksville Dam, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park was originally built in 1827 to provide water for the Ohio Canal. A 1952 update diverted water for industrial use, but now its primary function is to back up two miles of stagnant water.   

Aerial view of the Canal Diversion dam below the Route 82 bridge.
Christine Craycroft
Portage County Park District
The Canal Diversion dam blocks passage of canoers or fish in the Cuyahoga National Park. Route 82 bridge above.

“The dam pool above there does not meet our warm water criteria,” said the Ohio EPA’s Kurt Princic. “And I would point out that below the dam pool we are meeting exceptional warm water habitat, our criteria for the Cuyahoga River below that dam pool. That’s the gold standard, the A+. That puts it on par with the Grand River and the Chagrin River.

“So we have no reason to expect we are not going to have similar water quality improvements when we remove that dam.”

Still waters below Rt. 82.
Mark Urycki
The river upstream of the Brecksville dam looks pretty and placid but that indicates a low amount of oxygen.

The Brecksville dam is about 18 miles upstream of Lake Erie. The Friends of the Crooked River’s Elaine Marsh said anglers are excited about the possibilities without a dam blocking the river.

“There is hope that a trout species could go upstream to either Yellow Creek or Furnace Run and spawn. There is a possibility that the Cuyahoga could become a trout stream,” she explained.

But the dam isn’t just blocking fish, it’s also blocking canoers and kayakers. 

Deadly Dams

“The Brecksville dam is a site where people have actually died,” said Marsh, a kayaker since the 1970s.

The gentle-looking waterfall drops only about four feet, but such low-head dams are known as killers.

“The same reason that dam is a killer dam is the reason these waterfalls are dangerous at high water,” kayaker Don Howdyshell explained, near some Class V rapids in downtown Cuyahoga Falls.

“Dams create them naturally but when the river rises it create these hydraulics that can continue to pull you underwater but don’t allow you to flush downriver. So you end up being recirculated to the point of exhaustion and drowning. And then the river will continue to hold you there until it either lowers or time allows debris or people to flush out.”

The rolling water below the Brecksville low-head dam rolls objects and prevents them from moving downstream.
Mark Urycki
The rolling water below the Brecksville low-head dam rolls objects and prevents them from moving downstream.

With the dam out of the way, canoers will be able to paddle a 40-mile stretch to Lake Erie, following the path Native Americans took centuries ago.

When the Brecksville Dam is gone, all eyes will be on the biggest dam on the river, the 420-foot-wide Gorge Dam connecting Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. 

The Gorge or Edison Dam

The Gorge Dam aerates a lot of water downstream but starves the river of oxygen in a two-mile stagnant pool.
Mark Urycki
The Gorge Dam aerates a lot of water downstream but starves the river of oxygen in a two-mile stagnant pool.

The latest target date for removal of the Gorge Dam is 2023 and the cost estimate is $70 million.  

“Part of that project involves one — we have to remove sediment behind the dam,” noted the Ohio EPA’s Princic. “That’s in the neighborhood of 850,000 cubic yards of sediment. That’s a huge volume of sediment.”

That’s 90,000 truckloads of sediment that would otherwise flow downstream damaging river beds, banks and habitats. Most of the cost of dam removal will go toward piping that sediment down to Akron’s Cascade Valley Metro Park.

“And then we obviously have to remove the structure,” Princic said. 

Taking down the 60-foot-tall dam won’t be easy either. It’s solid concrete.   

But once its gone, today’s mile-long dam pool will turn back into a river as the water level drops 50 feet. Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters said that will unveil large rocks and what was once quite a tourist attraction.

“The technical term is ‘the Big Falls.’ Our city was named after that, and it hasn’t been seen in over 100 years,” Walters said.

The "Big Falls" of Cuyahoga Falls
Ohio EPA
The "Big Falls" that Cuyahoga Falls became known for could be revealed for the first time in a century after the Gorge Dam is removed.

The unencumbered Cuyahoga would produce a stretch of whitewater 2 ½ miles long as the river drops 200 feet. That’s more than Niagara Falls.

Water flows down a rocky stream.
Mark Urycki
Part of the route downstream from the Sheraton (top left) through High Bridge Glen in Cuyahoga Falls. 

Mayor Walters said it will make his city a mecca for kayakers.

“So we will be building hotels and restaurants at that point,” he said.

Officials say, with clean water, things just seem to grow better.