Much to learn about Muskingum Watershed at Conservancy Court

The Conservancy Court for the Muskingum Watershed has met on the first Saturday in June for the past 22 years. This year’s meeting provided an exceptional amount of information on the district’s operations.

During the course of a year I receive questions from area residents and officials about the district’s plans and operations. The annual meeting gives me a chance to take these questions of the district’s administrator, attorney, treasurer, board president and the colonel for The Huntington District of The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Our system for flood control works. At this June’s meeting, I learned how well our system works. One fact that I was not aware of is that the flood of 2005 was caused by an in flux of water that greatly exceeded the water that flowed into the district prior to the flood of 1913, the largest flood in recorded history. The district is moving ahead with its plans to restore all dams and reservoirs to their original capacity. Dredging of reservoirs will begin in 2014. Repairs at the Dover Dam are two weeks from completion. Repairs at the Bolivar Dam are well under way. The district has four “dry reservoirs.” These are reservoirs that only receive and hold water when atmospheric conditions dictate. Most of the year they look like a small stream with a large damn across it. When put into use these are some of the district’s largest reservoirs in terms of capacity. Some of these dams are next in line for restoration.

Several years ago, the Blackfork Sub District opted out of our conservancy district. After two floods in the last 10 years exceeding their previous 500-year flood record, they are in the process of developing a plan that they hope will bring them back into our district. The law allows the court two years to consider a proposed flood control plan prior to voting on it. The Conservancy District does not develop flood control plans. They implement them once approved by the court. In point of fact this process takes five years. Development of a plan requires a full year of the study of how water comes into a district and an additional year of study to determine how a watershed handles water.

Duck Creek has been a recognized subdivision for many years. Its original plan was rendered ineffective by the construction of Interstate 77. I have been asking a lot of questions about Duck Creek during my three years on this court. We now have three early warning gauges on Duck Creek. I learned at this June’s meeting that the board has provided partial funding to The Washington and Noble Counties’ Soil and Water Conservation Agencies to start the process for those agencies to develop a new plan for The Duck Creek Watershed in their counties. The lake at Wolf Creek in Noble County was part of the original plan for Duck Creek. However because of I-77 it was built by the State for recreational purposes and is not owned by the watershed district. This past year saw the completion of 66 shoreline restoration projects. There are 400 more to go.

The district’s finances continue to improve. The district began the year with $34,000,000 and ended the year with $61,000,000. The board is preparing for the influx of additional monies from the leasing of deep oil rights on some of its lands. It has leased 9,600 of its 70,000 acres. These leases do not allow wells to be drilled on the district’s land, only under it. The district has many oil and gas wells. These are on lands that were leased by previous land owners. The money from oil and gas, unlike tax assessment monies, is unrestricted in its use.

The board has identified 60 maintenance projects at recreational facilities that have not been addressed in the past due to financial constraints. It is expected that part of the money from oil and gas leasing will enable the district to address these issues and improve its recreational facilities. The board is also studying a future lowering of the tax assessment rate due to the anticipated revenue from oil and gas. I have been asked during the past year about the conversion of dams on the Muskingum River to hydro-electricity.

The conservancy district does not own these dams. There is a company out of Massachusetts that is going through the regulatory process at the federal level to obtain the right to operate hydro-electric plants on the Muskingum River.

Additionally, there is a bill, pending in Congress, that if passed would require a survey of all dams in our country to determine their feasibility for use in generating electricity. At present there are no plans to lease watershed dams for the generation of hydro-electricity.

Ed Lane is a Washington County Common Pleas judge.