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Buckeye Lake Reopens Its Waters, But Not All Residents Give A Dam

A new dam was constructed along the original 200-year-old earthen dam at Buckeye Lake.
Esther Honig
A new dam is being contructed along the original 200-year-old earthen dam at Buckeye Lake.

It's a wet and overcast morning on Buckeye Lake, the century year-old manmade lake just 30 minutes east of Columbus.

Despite the weather, Dave Levacy—owner of Buckeye Lake Marina—is rushing to clean and service hundreds of boats for Memorial Day weekend. 

He shows off a pair of yachts sitting in his parking lot: Mammoth-sized white boats, wrapped tightly in bright blue tarps. It’s been two years since they’ve touched water, but this summer Levacy thinks they’ll finally set sail.

For the past two years, Levacy says there hasn’t been have much more than a kayak on these waters. Then this spring, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced that progress on the construction of a new dam would allow summer water levels to return to one foot below normal.

“That one foot can be the difference between being able to use a boat or not,” Levacy says.

In 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers determined the Buckeye Lake Dam, a 180-year-old earthen dam, was at risk of collapsingPrivate docks and hundreds of residential developments built into the side—against regulation—had severely compromised its integrity.

Credit Esther Honig
Dave Levacy, owner of Buckeye Lake Marina, says business is booming with news of high water levels at the lake.

The state could either drain the lake or construct a new dam.

Levacy is thankful they chose the latter, even though construction has meant leaner times for the area's usually-robust tourism economy. To keep his business afloat, he's turned to online sales, but he's thankful the state and Governor John Kasich were willing to spend the $110 million on a new dam.

“Sometimes you have to be inconvenienced, but I'm all for everything they've done for Buckeye Lake,” Levacy says.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources anticipates the dam will be complete by 2018, nearly two years ahead of schedule. Levacy says that deadline means customers can see the light at the end of the tunnel and boat sales are booming.

“At this point and time, compared to last year out, sales have doubled,” Levacy says. "It’s growing to the point where it’s difficult to keep up with it."

For the 10,000 residents who call Buckeye Lake home, the end of the tunnel cannot come soon enough.

Colleen Sears has lived on the lake's shore for the last 30 years, but since construction started, her home is no longer a lake front property. Four miles of chain link fend now separates her backyard from the lake’s shore.

“We’ve had a lot of property impact from the construction,” Sears says. “Things have been splattered with concrete when they built the first layer of the dam.”

Credit Esther Honig
A chain link fence separates residents from the construction site and limits their access to the lake.

Many of the lake’s residents are not especially pleased with how Kasich has handled the dam’s construction. Some think his effort to save Buckeye Lake, in fact, was just a political gimmick for his 2016 presidential campaign.

Sears says property values were driven down considerably, and she has no choice but to stick it out—property values are so low, she says, she can't afford to sell.

Then there’s the cost of storing her boat, because she and her neighbors had to tear out their private boat docks to make way for the construction. Eventually, they will have to pay to have them rebuilt in accordance with the state's requirements.

ODNR says that’s to prevent the near-collapse situation that caused the state to have to replace the dam in the first place.

On the lake’s eastern end, Jeff Craiglow is content with the progress. He manages Papa Boos, a popular bar and restaurant with an outdoor stage and enough picnic benches to accommodate hundreds of diners. He's betting heavily on this summer’s success.

"We’ve done a lot of improvements to Papa Boos because we know that everything is coming back,” Craiglow says.

Credit Esther Honig
Jeff Craiglow, manager of Papa Boos restaurant, expects a busy summer with boats coming back to Buckeye Lake.

He points to fresh paint, a remodeled stage and the new docks built off the back patio. With the water levels back up, he hopes to capture 20 to 30 percent more business that will be coming in off the lake.

To top it all off, Craiglow says, he has the restaurant fully staffed for the first time in two years.

On the other end of the lake, restaurant owner John Doneff is far more skeptical. From his patio at the Island House, he watches a large yellow backhoe shovel dirt in the distance.

“As you can see, have a machine doing something,” Doneff says. “Moving dirt from one pile to another pile, I guess."

Doneff, unlike Craiglow, has not hired back his original staff. In the last two years he's gone from 15 servers to just four. He says has little confidence this summer will live up to everyone's expectations.

“The state of Ohio is incapable of doing anything correctly, I'm sorry," Doneoff says.

Credit Esther Honig
John Doneff, owner of Island House, is skeptical the water levels will stay consistent throughout the summer.

Doneff says the state is not taking into account how much water will evaporate in the heat of summer, when there is little chance of rain.

“If we don't get the rain to replace it, then all of a sudden our boating can go downhill very fast," he says.

Doneff worries that boats could be back on their trailers and his customers will stay home.

For ODNR's part, they say that’s not likely. Until the dam's completed, they'll be monitoring water levels very closely and have planned accordingly.