Cities duel over troubled waters

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Akron said it needed more water to serve its customers. Kent feared granting Akron the right to take water from the Cuyahoga River would lead to certain doom. But the Supreme Court of Ohio disagreed and, in 1914, upheld an Ohio law granting Akron the exclusive rights to water in the Cuyahoga River. More than 80 years later, the battle continues. The latest disagreement is over Akron's plan to divert up to 5 million gallons of water daily from Lake Rockwell in Franklin Township and Streetsboro, one of Akron's main water supplies and site of one of its water treatment plants. Lost flow would be replaced with water from Portage Lakes into two points in the Cuyahoga River _ both downstream of Portage County. The water would be used to supply parts of Copley, Coventry and Springfield townships in southern Summit County as part of three joint economic development agreements. The Council of Great Lakes Governors, which must approve Akron's plan because it would divert water from the Great Lakes watershed to the Ohio River watershed, has delayed a vote on the matter. Kent City Council has approved a resolution opposing the plan after hearing concerns about increased wastewater treatment costs and harm to aquatic life in the river. The controversy has led some Portage County residents to revisit the uneasy relationship between the two communities. Ask Portage County politicians, farmers and long-time residents what impact Akron Waterworks has had on the county, and they'll paint a portrait of an overpowering entity that extracts natural resources for its own profit, drains the Cuyahoga River, and deprives residents of the right to use land around it for recreation. But Akron officials contend that reputation is undeserved, saying the city protects the environment in the river, employs local people and works well with its neighbors.

An 83-year dispute

Akron owns property in Portage County that extends through five communities. In addition to Lake Rockwell, Akron also owns the Mogadore Reservoir, a sprawling lake extending through parts of Brimfield and Suffield. The city also owns two reservoirs on the upper Cuyahoga, La Due and East Branch, both in Geauga County. In 1911, the Ohio legislature granted Akron the right to use water in the Cuyahoga, Little Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas rivers and its tributaries to supply water to its residents. In a 1993 Record-Courier column local historian Loris Troyer noted William S. Kent, the third generation of the family for which the city of Kent was named, and the Kent Courier, which he owned, predicted Akron's reservoir would be a constant menace and that someday a bursting dam could devastate the region. ``The people of Akron are going to wake up some day and realize they have been made partners to one of the worst injustices ever perpetrated upon a neighboring community,'' stated a Kent Courier editorial quoted in Troyer's column. But despite his fury, Kent was unable to convince the courts to stop Akron's plan. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in Akron's favor on July 14, 1914. And 83 years later, residents still feel the sting. ``When do we stand up as citizens and say enough is enough?'' said Portage County Commissioner Chuck Keiper. ``I would like to challenge this agreement, in court if necessary. I don't think the legislature had the inherent right to take property from those who live along the river without compensation.'' Keiper said Akron Waterworks makes millions at Portage County's expense. Sewer costs are higher. Water suppliers must drill wells because they cannot use the abundant water supply in their own community. Akron determines what residents can and cannot do in and around the river. ``Every day we spend more and more because of it,'' Keiper said. ``Akron is a big city, and we've always been the farmers who got in their way. The farmers have been getting robbed.''

``Good Neighbors''

David Crandall, manager of Akron's Public Utilities Bureau, said Akron's negative reputation among some Portage Countians is undeserved. ``We have always prided ourselves on our ability to work with Portage County and Geauga County as best as we can,'' he said. To him, Akron is a community that employs Portage County residents and monitors river quality for the benefit of everyone. He said most people don't know Akron has a water supply on hand ready to provide emergency water to Kent should its system ever temporarily fail. Crandall said Akron's very presence helped Kent become the community it is today. ``Akron would not have grown without water, and I seriously doubt Kent would have grown as fast as it did if Akron was non-existent,'' he said. But Troyer disputes that claim, saying it was the Cuyahoga River that drew the first settlers, who needed water for their mills, to Kent. There were textile mills and other mills owned by the Kent family and others, and they so impacted the town that it was once called Franklin Mills.

Environment

The Kent Environmental Council and the Kent Environmental Commission claim if Akron diverts more water from the Cuyahoga River, it would have an adverse effect on aquatic life, making River Edge Park less enjoyable to use. It could also raise the cost of treating wastewater because there would be less river flow to dilute discharged wastewater, eventually leading to more stringent pollution control guidelines for industry and putting the city at a disadvantage for economic development, according to Wastewater Treatment Plant Manager Bob Brown. Kent is asking Akron for minimum releases from the Lake Rockwell dam, compensation for any additional water treatment costs the city incurs due to the diversion, testing of oxygen levels below the dam, and cooperation between the two cities for water conservation programs. Both cities say low flow in the river is a concern. Already, both agree, there are periods, typically in the summer when there is less rain and Akron residents use more water, when no water falls over the dams at Lake Rockwell and downtown Kent. Brown said when there is no flow over dams in the river, water beside the dams becomes a pond or lake. The biology of the river is affected because oxygen levels drop. Because river flow typically drops in the summer, when rivers hold less oxygen because water is warm, such periods can be especially detrimental to the river's biology and water quality. ``The goal must be to maintain river flow through the entire year, not just when it is convenient,'' Brown said. Brown believes Akron should release more water from its upper reservoirs to ensure there is enough water in Kent's portion of the river. But Crandall said additional releases would have a negative impact on recreational programs in the Upper Cuyahoga, and opening and closing gates continually could cause wear and tear due to excessive use and leading to the risk of a flood. He said Akron is considering several options to increase flow in the lower Cuyahoga, including ``flash boards,'' used to increase stored water and a siphon to send more water over the gates. Portage County Commissioner Chris Smeiles' suggestion to divert water from the Mogadore Reservoir to Congress Lake and eventually to Breakneck Creek and the Cuyahoga River is another option the city is considering, he said. And he said Akron is just as concerned about the quality of the river as Kent is, saying Akron has environmentally trained people on staff to monitor water quality often. ``We work cooperatively to make sure we maintain the river,'' he said. ``We protect that river more than people realize.''

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