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Gorge Dam removal moving forward with more than $100 million project agreement

Water flows over the Gorge Dam in Gorge Metro Park on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Water flows over the Gorge Dam in Gorge Metro Park on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

The removal of the Gorge Dam is taking another step toward reality with the signing of a project agreement on Wednesday. The United States Environmental Protection Agency and four partners, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, the city of Akron, FirstEnergy and the Ohio EPA, signed the more than $100 million agreement to remove nearly 900,000 cubic yards of sediment that sits behind the dam, according to the EPA.

The dam has been blocking the free flow of the river and a naturally occurring waterfall since 1911 when it was built to produce hydro and steam powered electricity, according to Free the Falls, a stakeholder committee dedicated to removing the dam. It's one of the largest unresolved water quality problems for the Cuyahoga River, the committee said, and taking the dam down is vital to restoring the health of the river, bringing clean water, recreational opportunities and economic development. Free the Falls contends the value of removing the dam far outweighs how much it will cost.

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan stands behind a podium on a stage.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan discusses removing the Gorge Dam on Oct. 25, 2023.

"Listen, it's been covered up for a long time," Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said, "and I think us being able to see it in our lifetimes is significant."

Before the dam can come down, sediment that's been collecting for more than 100 years must be removed, Courtney Winter, U.S. EPA project manager for sediment remediation, said.

"Within that dam pool, the sediment thickness is anywhere from 1 to 34 feet," Winter explained.

The sediment will be remediated and placed in a disposal area, which is being prepared this winter, she said. The space should be ready for sediment next summer, she said.

"We're hoping to begin next spring, early summer 2024, and the two dredging seasons then would be 2024-2025," Winter said. "There will be about a three month interim for the winter season where we'll have to demobilize and shut down."

The sediment will be pumped a couple miles to the disposal area, Winter said.

"The pumps will be noisy, but the benefit of having the distance that we have to cover with the pipeline is that the pumps can be spread out," Winter said, adding that the pumps will be placed in areas that avoid being a nuisance to those who live nearby.

Once the sediment is removed and placed in the disposal area, it will be covered in native material and contoured to look similar to nearby habitats, Winter said.

The Gorge Dam sediment remediation project schedule is projected on a screen.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
The Gorge Dam sediment remediation project is set to begin winter 2023 and finish in 2026, as seen here on Oct. 25, 2023.

The revised final design should be done this fall, Winter said.

"Hopefully, ideally if everything goes as we hope with the schedule, the remedial action will be complete in winter 2025-2026 and so after that, what everyone's waiting for is the dam removal project in 2026," Winter said.

The U.S. EPA will be monitoring impact to residents as dredging occurs, Winter said.

"There will be noise monitoring and odor monitoring that's occurring throughout the duration of the dredging," Winter said.

Stabilization of the former power plant is being done this year, with funding from Akron and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Winter said.

"All of that is not stable enough for the dredging contractors to work on," Winter said. "It's not stable enough for us to be able to have that staging area in place and so there's going to be work that's going to be occurring again over 2023-2024 so that it's ready to go come spring and summer is when the remedial action contractors are on board."

Trees are being cleared by the Front Street Bridge to make room for construction contractors, she said.

Cost estimates should be shared in the next few months but are being kept under wraps for now as the U.S. EPA prepares to open the project for contractor bids, Winter said. However, she shared that the project agreement totals more than $100 million.

Akron Gorge Dam project manager Heather Ullinger stands behind a podium on a stage.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Gorge Dam project manager Heather Ullinger explains the city's timeline for taking down the Gorge Dam on Oct. 25, 2023.

Akron is spearheading the removal of the dam, with funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Akron Gorge Dam project manager Heather Ullinger said.

"We obviously need to complete our design," Ullinger said. "We will use that completed design to apply for construction funding for the dam removal project, and then we will begin construction hopefully in 2026."

Taking the dam down will take some time, Ullinger said.

"ODNR [Ohio Department of Natural Resources] is requiring us to meet a draw down limit of one foot per week," Ullinger said.

Construction crews will slowly siphon the water as they take the dam down in a weeks long process, Ullinger said.

With all the work being done, Gorge Metro Park will need to be closed for some time, Summit Metro Parks Executive Director Lisa King shared.

"We think three to four years, maybe longer," King said. "For us, that's not a terrible thing based on what we're going to get in return."

However, Metro Parks will still be working on the beloved park while it's closed, she said.

"We will also be looking at maybe master planning that park as well to take a hard look at the trails that have been there a long time and just have a fresh look at it," King said.

This project has been decades in the making and includes more than 50 agencies, businesses, organizations and the public, Ohio EPA water quality supervisor Bill Zawiski said. He called the project a story of patience and partners.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.