Mahoning River’s hidden hazards
Poor signage, lack of portage adds to problems
WARREN — The sound of rushing water and the smooth cascade of water flowing over the old Warren Water Works Dam between Perkins and Packard parks along the Mahoning River may appear tranquil, but the low-head dam hides a secret.
The water flowing off the “mini waterfall” creates recirculating currents of water, trapping people or objects that go over the dam in a turbulent cycle, pushing them up, and then under, the water.
“It’s a dangerous trap,” said Chuck Miller, a 12-year kayaker of the Mahoning River and the founder of the Mahoning River Paddling Restoration Group.
A log stuck in the recirculating current of a low-head dam was still circulating a month after Miller first saw it, eroded down to a stump, he said.
Low-head dams are man-made structures in rivers that pool upstream water for various reasons. Low-head dams normally produce vertical water surface drops of one to 15 feet, according to the Nature Conservancy website. Low-head dams alter natural habitat and impair how a stream behaves.
Dozens of people are injured or killed each year from drowning at low-head dams, according to the Nature Conservancy.
The dams dot the Mahoning River and the prevalence of the deceptive structures on the more northern section of the river keeps even experienced paddlers like Miller away.
“We want to get people down the river in one piece. So we don’t paddle up here often, because of all of the unknown. There is not adequate signage or a clear-cut portage. On the lower Mahoning, there is less hazard. Some of the dams were removed, and if not, there is decisive portage with clear signage,” Miller said.
A portage is a place to pull out of the water with a boat, a path around the obstruction and a place to relaunch in the river.
In his nearly 33 years at the Warren Fire Department, Chief Ken Nussle recalls responding to calls at the dam five times, he said.
Three people did not survive going over the dam, but in the two more recent cases, the people were pulled from the water alive.
In May 2017, a teen girl on a fishing trip went into the river at Packard Park, went over the dam and was rescued in Perkins Park.
“It was a pretty long way to float downstream and not suffer any injury. She was very lucky,” Nussle said.
The last person to go over the dam is in a coma.
Lisa M. Zitello, 41, of Austintown, was pulled from the river May 3 when Jacob Fowler, 24, waded into the water on the west side of the river, flipped her onto her back and swam with her toward police officers on the east side of the river where Warren police officer Donald Shipman got in to pull her to the bank. Police officers gave her CPR until firefighters arrived and continued giving her aid until she was taken to the hospital.
Nussle said it is “extremely dangerous” to rescue someone stuck in the cycling current, but luckily Zitello was sent out of the cycle in a way that allowed Fowler to get to her. Zitello had been in a kayak when she went over the dam.
Nussle said installing a flotation device near the dam wouldn’t be a good idea because untrained people using them may be pulled into the water and become a second victim.
“Rescuing people stuck in the reverse current is very dangerous because rescuers become victims. And, if the victim is unconscious, they can’t grab the device,” Nussle said. “They call it a drowning machine for a reason.”
Once used as a power plant by the city of Warren at the beginning of the 20th century and perhaps once a part of a canal system, the dam no longer aids in industrial operations and disrupts fish ecosystems and damages aquatic diversity, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The hazards the dams pose limits the “recreational potential of a river” and have resulted in deaths and injuries throughout the state, according to ODNR.
“Removal of dams, particularly those in highly populated areas, can greatly improve recreational opportunities and increase safety,” according to an ODNR fact sheet.
Miller said it is a shame the river isn’t passable.
“You have the beautiful park just upstream and a beautiful park downstream. People should be able to take advantage of that. It is a missed opportunity,” Miller said.
The dam could be removed as part of an effort between the cities on the Mahoning River, the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments and the state.
There are nine dams along the Mahoning River targeted for removal, not just to increase the navigability of the river, but to also dredge out contaminants from when the dams were used to pool water for the area’s steel mills. One of the dams in Girard is still being used to pool water for McDonald Steel. The removal effort is expected to lead to an increase in river usage, spur economic development and lead to a healthier river.
About half of the $26 million in funding for the removal has been obtained and the dam in Lowellville is being removed now.
A flow study is being conducted to determine how the dam removal could affect the flow of the river.
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin said he hopes to see the dam at Summit Street removed in 2022, but there could be delays in obtaining funding because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Warren is working with Eastgate, as are the other communities along the river, to obtain funding through the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
“A lot of plans have been placed on hold because of the virus, but all of us mayors on the Mahoning River believe in the viability of the project, even if it is on pause for now. We still have funding to apply for, but we are doing that through Eastgate. They are the quarterback for us on this, and we are lucky to have them because when apply for funding in a collaborative effort, we have more luck,” Franklin said.
The dams have outlived their useful life, Franklin said, and need to be removed to bring safer recreation opportunities back to the Mahoning River in all parts of Warren, Franklin said.
Eastgate has generally planned to remove the downstream dams first, moving upstream, but Miller said he hopes to see the dam at Summit Street moved up in priority since the accident in May.
If not, Miller said something should be done soon to better warn people of the dam and provide a portage to leave the river.
Eddie Colbert, Warren’s safety service director, said the city will consider anything that can be done to improve the safety of the river, including working with paddle groups to gather input from the people who use the river the most.
Many hands are involved in this section of the river’s management, including the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Trumbull County MetroParks and the city.
The dam is owned by the city of Warren and Habosky-Davidson Enterprises. The city owns the land on the west side of the river, and the company, operator of the now-closed Powerhouse Bar, owns the land on the east side.
While Ohio law does not assign responsibility for low-head dam signage to ODNR, the department regularly assists private and public landowners by providing advice and signage to warn of waterway hazards and other safety issues, according to a statement from Heidi Hetzel-Evans, communications manager for ODNR.
Zach Svette, director of Trumbull County MetroParks, said he recently placed an order for more signs warning of the danger of the dam for the water and launch sites. Signs and buoys placed on the river in the past were swept away during off-season flooding, he said.
Miller suggested ODNR or the city install a cable to hang warning signs above the river, so it cannot be swept away.
In the future, Svette said members of the public or the representatives from the city can notify him of missing signs and he will order new ones.
“The local municipalities and the county park system will increase education of dangers of dams and highly encourage all users to call the park system to discuss any hazards within a particular section of the river, so that users unfamiliar with the river can be advised of what may lay within their trip,” Svette said.
“Ultimately it is the dam owner who is responsible for the signage for the dams. As the park district, we try to work with all involved to acquire and place signage and buoys,” Svette said.
He said he also will edit brochures and online materials to emphasize how dangerous it is to keep going on the river past Packard Park. Although the materials indicate the Mahoning State Water Trail ends at Packard Park, and that is the last place to get out of the water before the Summit Street dam, and warns to never boat over a low-head dam, there is nothing on the actual map to indicate the dangers of continuing past Packard Park, and describes the park as a place to access the river. Signs at Packard Park that Svette put up last week indicate the site as a part of the water trail, but they do not indicate it is the end of the trail or that it is dangerous to continue.
“The sections of waterways, which are designated water trails, are chosen so boaters can safely enjoy paddling with a minimum of water hazards. The Mahoning State Water Trail brochure includes information on the hazards of low-head dams. We will recommend that Trumbull County MetroParks add this low-head dam location to the brochure, so paddlers understand they should not travel any further than Packard Park. ODNR also offers a public database of the state’s boating areas, which details all known boating hazards on navigable waterways,” Hetzel-Evans stated in an email.
Miller recommends anyone considering boating down the Mahoning read up on the sections they intend to paddle and to ask experienced paddlers in one of several Facebook groups for advice. And, in addition to dangerous dams, boaters also should pay attention to water levels.