Residents concerned about hydroelectric dam project

LOWELL – Residents of Lowell’s small Buell Island say their home is a paradise but fear it could soon be a paradise lost.

A proposed hydroelectric power plant at the Lowell Dam will be a detriment to the recreation and wildlife that makes the island so special, said residents.

“They say this dam isn’t going to affect anything. I say it is going to affect something. When we have high water, or heavy rain, water already flows across my property,” said Larry Pritchard, 71, a resident of Buell Island.

In November, Boston-based renewable energy company Free Flow Power Inc. applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to install and operate seven hydroelectric power generating facilities on seven dams along the Muskingum River, including Lowell Lock and Dam. It would generate a total 22 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 19,000 homes.

However, area officials and residents said there has been little communication to them about the project.

“There isn’t really anybody that knows much about it,” said Adams Township trustee Wayne Isner.

All of Buell Island falls within the township, said Isner. The Muskingum River island, located just off of Ohio 60, is the site of approximately 50 homes and also a community swimming pool, ball fields, and Lowell’s annual Octoberfest and Springfest festivals.

“The information that we’ve got on this has all been hearsay so far,” Isner said.

The village of Lowell has heard only slightly more, said Mayor David Pitzer.

“No one has approached myself or the council to my knowledge. We’ve just received their notice of license application,” he said.

Several of the island’s residents also received notice of the license application, along with a computer disc that contained more than 1,600 pages of information about the project.

But rather than clarifying his questions, the disc is just an overwhelming headache for Pritchard, he said.

“The company sent these discs out but I don’t know how to do much on the computer,” he said.

Without clearer information, residents are left to speculate how the proposed structure might affect them.

Pritchard, who lives above the dam on the canal side, near the north side of the island, is worried that any sort of new construction will affect how quickly the water backs up onto his property. Any hindrance to the flow of the river would just make those occurrences worse, he said.

Pritchard’s neighbor, Jerry Smith, 58, lives on the river side of the island, not more than 100 yards upstream of the dam.

“We boat and fish and swim off our property. We don’t know how it’s going to devalue the property,” he said.

Smith is worried the changes will ruin his family’s lifestyle. The recreation and wildlife watching is what makes Smith’s cottage such an idyllic spot, he said.

Resident Jim Wilson, 60, lives downstream of the dam, and is also worried that the proposed power source will put an end to his river hobbies. Wilson’s is one of the properties that might be considered in the erosion zone, he said.

“I kayak a lot. Even if my property doesn’t have shoreline erosion, I probably won’t be able to paddle out by hand,” he said.

Shoreline erosion has been a big concern for Friends of the Lower Muskingum, said board member Marilyn Ortt.

“Anything you do to change the current in the river is going to impact the stabilization of the river banks. All of that would have to be addressed,” she said.

Wilson said the company has proposed building up the impacted shorelines with limestone rip rap in order to protect them from erosion caused by the discharge channel – the area where the water would be leaving the power generation facility.

He also worries how the proposed project will affect the unique ecosystem that thrives around the island.

“The beauty of this place and the reason this property is so valuable to me is the environment there – the wildlife,” said Wilson, whose property has been in his family since his grandfather built a home there in 1933.

Lately, islanders have been seeing bald eagles in the area. But that might change if anything disrupts the shallow area below the dam that the eagles prefer for hunting and fishing, he said.

Per the initial proposal, the hydro plant would be using all of the available water during certain low flow times of the year, meaning no water would be going over the dam for up to six months, said Ortt.

But the company has said it will maintain a continuous flow over the dams, meaning fish and endangered mussels who make their home just below the dam will still have the oxygenated water vital to their existence, she said.

However, the protected mussel bed would have to be moved during construction, said Ortt.

“They seem to be very causal about talking about just moving these mussel beds. They talk about moving them to a similar or suitable area, but there is no similar area,” Wilson said.

Finally, little is known about how or when the project would actually be constructed, although earlier timelines indicated it would be in 2014.

A narrow dead end road that is half in the village and half in the township is the only way to access the dam area from the island.

“That road is really bad. The township doesn’t have any money to do anything with that road,” said Pritchard.

The company would have to bond the road, said Isner, meaning it would be held liable for damage done there.

Still, to many island residents it seems like the company will be the only one befitting from the project, said Smith.

“I’m sure it’s going to impact us in a negative way,” he said.

A spokesperson from Free Flow Power Inc. could not be reached for comment.

Daniel Lissner, general counsel and spokesman for Free Flow Power, has previously said that other hydro power facilities help provide an excellent habitat for fish. Lissner has also said the company is working with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources on plans that will protect continued recreational use at the seven proposed dams.

All seven dams are owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the entire Muskingum River Parkway.

Lissner has also said that at least one public meeting will be scheduled later this year that will provide an opportunity for people to learn more about the project and identify issues, if any, that may need to be addressed at that time.