State to make $14.7M repair to Hueston Woods dam

After years of study and ongoing concern about the long-term safety of Acton Lake dam at Hueston Woods State Park, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is about to launch the first major overhaul of the dam since it was built in 1956. To bring the dam into compliance with current safety standards, the state will soon begin a two-year, $14.8 million renovation of both the dam and spillway. BYRON STIRSMAN / STAFF

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After years of study and ongoing concern about the long-term safety of Acton Lake dam at Hueston Woods State Park, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is about to launch the first major overhaul of the dam since it was built in 1956. To bring the dam into compliance with current safety standards, the state will soon begin a two-year, $14.8 million renovation of both the dam and spillway. BYRON STIRSMAN / STAFF

Lake levels won’t be impacted during repairs

A crumbling dam at Hueston Woods State Park will get a $15 million facelift starting in May.

The two-year project — funded by state taxpayers — will stop a series of small leaks that will preserve the park’s lake, which attracts thousands of visitors annually.

Crews will add more than 50,000 tons of aggregate rock and other materials to the dam and rehabilitate its cracked spillway.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has harbored concerns about the condition of the 62-foot-high dam, which was constructed of dirt, clay and rock in 1956, for at least three years.

Seepage, which is common to earthen dams, has been excessive at Acton Lake in the park, according to Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesman John Wisse. He said water from the lake works its way under the dam, comes out on the back side and then is channeled away from the area.

“It is in need of repair, not emergency repair like it needs to be done next week, but it is a high hazard dam and the condition is not rated very good,” said Wisse.

High hazard dams are given official designation to describe what would happen if they failed suddenly, likely causing severe property damage and probable loss of life.

Park officials have discussed the need for Acton Lake rehabilitation since 2011 but funding for the project was not automatic, given the state’s backlog of capital improvement projects in parks across Ohio. The state owns 116 other dams, many of them in Ohio-owned parks.

But this week the State Controlling Board, which approves funding for tax-funded projects across Ohio, released $14.7 million for the repair project at Hueston Woods. The approval from the state board clears the way for the project to begin this spring.

“The dam has had its problems for many years,” Mark Hecquet, the executive director of the Butler County Visitor’s Bureau, said. “Anything that preserves that lake is key. Certainly, Hueston Woods is a major attractor of visitors every year.”

Last year, 1.6 million people flocked to Hueston Woods.

To keep those tourists visiting, the lake will stay open at normal water levels during the repairs, which makes the two-year project more costly, Mark Lockhart, the park manager at Hueston Woods, said.

When the project was first considered in 2011, state officials estimated it would cost $5 million— a third of the project’s now projected expense.

“We decided that was a little more costly but well worth the effort to keep fisheries intact, not affect wildlife, not affect recreational use of the lake as well,” said Lockhart.

Closing the lake was never an option, Lockhart said. Similar projects in other states, including the one at Lake Cumberland State Park in Kentucky, led to a sharp drop in tourism when lake levels were lowered temporarily for dam repairs.

To avoid water loss, Lockhart said the dam will be repaired one section at a time. A temporary dam will be built and the water pumped out to allow work to proceed.

“Then when they are finished working, they will refill it with water and pull the pilings out,” Lockhart said. The process will be repeated along the entire face of the dam.

Allowing the lake to stay open at normal water levels will keep frequent visitors coming to Hueston Woods this summer, Charlie DeArmon, the commodore of the Hueston Sailing Association, said.

“We were worried that they would have to drain the lake. (It would be) the first season in 57 years that we would not be able to sail,” DeArmon said. “We can’t wait to get out there and sail.”

The multi-million dollar renovation will also be a boost for Sunesis Construction Company, a West Chester business that was selected to handle the dam repairs. The local company, which just finished a state park marina project last year, will hire roughly 10 or 15 new employees to work on the Acton Lake dam, Corbin Lewis, the general manager of Sunesis, said.

“This is a big project for us,” Lewis said. “We’re anxious to get the project underway and continue our work with the (state).”

The dam reconstruction is slated to wrap up in December of 2015.

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