FREMONT — With each powerful punch from the hydraulic jackhammers, the Sandusky River moves closer to a return to its former role as a free-flowing stream in the Lake Erie watershed.
The Ballville Dam, just a few flips of the calendar beyond its 100th year as a barrier in the waterway, is being taken apart, chunk by chunk. With every slug of concrete separated from the structure, the anticipation builds.
For many years, anglers have been banned from fishing the stretch of the river below the dam during the spring walleye run, but once the dam is gone, miles of potential additional spawning sites could be open to the fish — and fishermen.
“I think everyone is just anxious to see what that section of river will look like once this is all done,” said Bernie Whitt, who runs Angler’s Supplies tackle shop here, a bit downstream from the dam. “I’m looking forward to next spring, and seeing just how far up the river those walleyes will go, now that the dam won’t be there to hold them back.”
Whitt observed the dam, which was built in 1913 by the Fremont Power and Light Company to generate hydroelectric power, essentially created two different rivers. The waterway below the 34-foot high structure was faster-moving, had varying depths, and provided a range of habitat, including the rubble-strewn river bottom the walleye use as a spawning grounds. By holding back the flow, the 400-foot long dam restricted the natural movement of the water and created a more than 2-mile long deeper pool that spread out wider than the original course of the river.
“With the dam coming down and that big lake above the dam draining, that whole section of the river will move up and down with the heavy rains, just like the lower river has always done,” Whitt said. “When we get high water in April, I think the walleyes will be moving beyond the dam site and finding new areas to spawn.”
The city of Fremont purchased the dam in 1959 and used it to supply water to the community. As issues arose with the quality of the water the city was drawing from the river because of nitrates from agricultural runoff, and the continued deterioration of the dam, Fremont built a 100-acre upground reservoir that came online in 2013.
The dam was first notched in fall 2017, allowing the huge reservoir of water trapped above the structure to start to drain. As the water level dropped, thousands of freshwater mussels were exposed and crews of college students, volunteers, and a few inmates from the Sandusky County Jail took part in the arduous process of transplanting the mollusks to suitable habitat elsewhere on the river.
Then the real removal process got underway last week, with the heavy equipment groaning its way into position on the downstream side of the dam. The jackhammers have been chipping away and as the notch widens, the previously placid pool above the dam has been looking more and more like the ribbon of moving water it was more than a century ago.
So after decades of legal wrangling about the fate of the archaic hulk, we are finally past the point of no turning back on the Ballville Dam, and the Sandusky River is morphing into its pre-1900 state. Mike Wilkerson, the Fisheries Management Supervisor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife in the northwest corner of the state, said change is taking place in fairly rapid fashion.
“We are already seeing the river find its course as it cuts through the sediment that collected behind the dam. Eventually, flood waters will remove a lot of that material and the river will slowly work its way down to where it flows over the bedrock like it did 100 years ago,” he said. “We expect that the river above where the dam has stood will look very much like the river below the dam looks today.”
Roger Knight, who spent almost 30 years with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, was involved in the early grant-writing process to seek out funding for the removal project. He said interest in removing the dam dates back almost three decades, since the nitrate and dam safety issues involved with the decaying structure “were chronic and among the worst in the state.”
“I always viewed this as a win-win project, for the city to address chronic issues and for the public that benefits from ecological restoration of a major free-flowing tributary to Lake Erie,” Knight said. “Fisheries were part of the benefit, but this project was much more than that. I don't have the words to describe how pleased I am to see dam removal finally under way after many years of efforts by many people.”
Whitt said after so much time and money was wasted on the court battles about the dam, he is excited about what the future likely could hold for the river as it exhibits new signs of healing every day.
“We’re starting to see rapids forming a ways up above the dam, and when the sediment washes out and the rocks are exposed, I think the fish will move in pretty quickly,” he said.
Travis Hartman, the current head of the ODNR’s Sandusky Fisheries Research Station, said there is ample reason for walleye anglers to be optimistic.
“The removal offers a lot of potential benefits to walleye spawning,” he said. “The entire stretch from the dam to Tiffin offers plenty of additional spawning habitat that is of higher quality than the area the fish are currently spawning in. It is a reasonable expectation that access to improved spawning habitat will increase even if they don’t migrate farther upstream. My personal opinion is that we will see migrations farther upstream the first spring  that they are able to.”
Wilkerson said besides the impact on spawning walleye, the river’s permanent residents quickly will take a liking to the new digs the dam removal has available for occupancy.
“There should be a lot of repopulation of those upper stretches as the insects move in,” he said. “It won’t be a surprise to see mayflies, stoneflies, caddis flies, crayfish, and hellgrammites already moving into that first section of the impoundment that drained pretty quickly. Then we’ll see the darters and sucker species of fish move in — I’d be surprised if they’re not there already. And with the walleye, we’ll have to see just how fast they take advantage of all this new habitat.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.
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