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Three aging dams that prevent catastrophic floods to be restored near Lancaster

 The Rock Mill dam or Structure Nine, is the largest and one of the oldest in the Hunter's Run Conservancy District. Its funding is separate from the $166.5 million in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was announced in March. [Tyler Thompson /  WOSU]
The Rock Mill dam or Structure Nine, is the largest and one of the oldest in the Hunter's Run Conservancy District. Its funding is separate from the $166.5 million in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was announced in March.

When it comes to infrastructure, we often think of things like light rails or huge freeways. But there’s also agricultural infrastructure. An aging dam armed to help prevent catastrophic floods in Lancaster will benefit from some of $166 million dollars allocated in the new federal infrastructure bill to address farmland projects.

It’s one piece of a larger puzzle, where two of the largest dams in Fairfield County will also be restored.

Hunter's Run Conservancy District watches over the 28 dams that arm Lancaster's westside. These dams handle sediment control and prevent catastrophic flood events, like the one in 1948. [Courtesy of the Hunter's Run Conservancy District]

Lancaster’s landscape is like a cereal bowl, surrounded by 28 dams in the Upper Hocking watershed. Eight of those dams control floodwaters in the Hunters Run Conservancy District on the city’s westside.

Three are a decade past their design life.

Dam Structure Three near Lancaster is the latest to receive federal funding for its high hazard designation. Gregg Wells is an engineer for the United States Department of Agriculture in Ohio.

“There’s a potential risk of life and property," Wells said. "There’s a downstream population that we want to continue to protect.”

That includes residential areas, farmland, industrial land and transportation corridors like the U.S. 33 bypass.

Dam structure three is one of 108 agricultural projects recently designated to receive $166.5 million to address aging infrastructure. The project is part of the Watershed Rehabilitation Program or 'REHAB.'

USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service will lead a two-year planning phase to develop a solution with its local partners at the Hunter's Run Conservancy. That could mean repairs, alterations or a decommissioning of the dam. New structures could also be part of that solution.

Once the plans are set, the next steps will include designs for the solution and ends with construction. USDA will fund 100% of planning, design and staff costs. It will cover 65% of the total project cost. The remaining 35% will be covered by local sponsors.

It’s the same process being used to address two of the largest dams in this water district.

The Rock Mill [Structure Nine] and Stonewall Creek [Structure Four] dams protect about 6,000 acres of land on Lancaster’s west side.

The process for these two dams started 10 years ago and were funded through the 2021 fiscal year.

The Rock Mill dam is the network’s largest, measuring 76 feet tall and 1,000 feet wide. If you’re standing at the top, the steep grassy hill ends at the inlet where water passes through the drainage.

A news clipping gathered by the folks from the Hunter's Run Conservancy District. A PowerPoint with history of the floods and dams can be found at the conservancy's website. [Thompson, Tyler /  Courtesy of the Hunter's Run Conservancy District.]

“Pieces of this puzzle tie back to the idea that Fairfield County, was responding to the flood of 1948.”

That’s Jonathan Ferbrache with Fairfield Soil and Water District, another local sponsor for the project. The flood destroyed homes and roads, including the U.S 22 bypass, a major transportation route at the time. It split up the community.

“Bridges, some of them were still covered bridges, washed out and gone," Ferbrache said. "Ultimately, they went nearly a decade without bridges. Until some of these dams could be built, they weren’t going to make that investment to rebuild it.”

Unprecedented damage birthed the Hunter’s Run Conservancy District and led to construction of the dams. Those dams served as a pilot project for the U.S. It was a community-wide effort partnered with local conservancy boards and the U.S Department of Agriculture.

Damages from the flood exceeded $1 million at the time. That would be $11 million today.

Fairfield Soil and Water District houses archives of photos that show damages from the 1948 flood. [WOSU/Tyler Thompson and the Fairfield Soil and Water District]

The pilot project succeeded in a multitude of ways. Structures were built to not only limit flooding but many smaller structures were built for silt and sediment control. Farmers took advantage of innovative conservation and soil practices at time to absorb more water on their land. Channels were improved and peak run off from the watershed was reduced.

The dams completed construction by 1960. Since then, Ferbrache said those dams have served as the quiet guardians that protect the area.

“There are huge amounts of community that would be impacted if just one of those dams didn’t serve its purpose. Cut off from schools, cut off from Kroger – it’s a mind-boggling amount of impact.”

The Rock Mill and Stonewall Creek dams will finish their plan phase by March 2023. USDA will continue its financial and technical support as those projects transition into the design and construction phases.

Planning for structure three will begin later this year and will follow a similar two-year phase.

Copyright 2022 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.