Dam conflict: Ongoing water issue needs resolution

It can’t be said that no one gives a darn about the dam between the Third Street and Robert N. Stewart bridges.

People have been talking about saving, replacing or eliminating it for at least 35 years, and the amount of money spent just on studying what should be done easily runs into six figures. Needless to say, from the perspective of those who have watched it erode year to year, studying the problem has been as far as the process has gotten.

Last week, the issue came up again at an open house hosted by city officials and aimed at getting a feel for public attitudes as to what should be done about conditions in the riverfront area that some have described as an eyesore.

It’s the eyesore element that appears to be the major motivating force in this latest effort, and that consideration is based upon recent development that has exposed more people to the unsightly site and promises to bring even more in the years to come. The opening of the Upland Columbus Pump House restaurant in the century-old building that originally provided power to the city has given hundreds of outside diners clear views of the fractured dam and the flotsam and trash that have gathered around it. Even more will be able to survey that scene should plans for a riverfront walk around the restaurant come to fruition.

While the incentive to do something about the dam is great, there might be some opposition to spending a bunch of money just to prettify something. Not to argue that aesthetics is the only thing behind past efforts to do something about the dam.

It was put in place shortly after the turn of the 20th century in part to allow a higher water pool for the city waterworks – the pump house. As was pointed out in a 2001 letter to the editor in The Republic, that important and useful purpose eventually came to be superfluous as the city developed other power resources.

Somewhere along the way, however, the public apparently became enamored of the scene created under ideal conditions when water cascaded evenly across the breadth of the structure. It was a mini-falls that was clearly in view not just from the shoreline but also from the old Second Street Bridge. Pictures from that scene still exist and serve to evoke feelings of nostalgia, especially among longtime residents who remember the pre-fractured dam.

The breakage in the dam was not the only contribution to the eyesore status. The old Second Street Bridge, which passed over a portion of the dam, collapsed around 1950, and a new bridge – the current Third Street structure – was built to the west of the old one. The removal process was not complete, as some of the original pilings are still in place and clearly visible.

The breaks in the dam have raised safety concerns over the years. In 2002 a 36-year-old man in a canoe tried to maneuver his boat through a section of the dam that had been breached several years earlier. The canoe struck a rock and flipped over, but the swift-water rescue team was able to free him from the dam.

That the dam is still in a fractured state is not for a lack of supporters who wish to do something about it. One of the most noteworthy efforts began in 1997 when downtown business leader Carl Miske, who led the River Rats in the last quarter of the 20th century, sounded a battle cry for action on addressing the problem.

That effort was quickly championed by Mayor Fred Armstrong and other city leaders who were also concerned that the fractured dam could change the water flow and be an erosion factor in an area that had once served as the city dump. They enlisted the resources of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and in 2001 the corps came forward with a plan to replace the existing and damaged dam with a series of three dam-like riffles. The price tag on the project was estimated at $1.25 million, but the city was expected to put up an estimated $300,000.

Promising though that resolution might have been, it had little appeal for the U.S. Congress, which had to appropriate the funds. The plan died a slow but inevitable death.

The new effort to get the dam area cleaned up came about in a roundabout way. Last year, during the administration of Mayor Kristen Brown, a proposal for a riverfront walk over the shoreline of the river and around the site for the Pump House restaurant was put forth. Predictably, due to the strained relations between Brown and members of the City Council, the riverfront bridge proposal became the subject of some controversy.

At the time council member Frank Jerome suggested that before any foot bridge was put in place, something needed to be done about the mess that would be beneath it. What that something might be remains to be seen. Repairing or eliminating the dam itself would undoubtedly be complicated, involving state and possibly even federal agencies with their own priorities and restraints. It will also be very expensive.

Even given the magnitude of those potential complications, it would be a shame if the current situation continues with no resolution, especially considering the effort that was put forth over the years by a great many people.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.