Post-Industrial Communities Look to their River for Stability
A low-head dam on the Mahoning River in the City of Struthers, Ohio. One of nine legacy structures left over from the region’s industrial past.
From the early 1800’s to the early 1980’s, the Mahoning River bore the brunt of the iron and steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio and the surrounding communities. When the nine major steel mills were in operation, the EPA states that 400,000 pounds per day of suspended solids, 70,000 pounds per day of oil and grease, 9,000 pounds per day of ammonia-nitrogen, 800 pounds per day of zinc, 600 pounds per day of phenolics and 500 pounds per day of cyanide were released into the river. When the industry disappeared, they left behind a polluted legacy and infrastructure, like low-head dams, that serve little purpose for these post-industrial communities.
Could this long-forgotten river be a point of cohesion for a fragmented region that has yet to stabilize from the massive economic downturn decades in the past?
River restoration plans began in the mid-to-late 1990’s with local partners from the Mahoning Valley, the EPA, and the Army Corps of Engineers. An initial reconnaissance and feasibility study laid out a massive project that included dredging 750,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in the riverbed and along the banks. This plan never materialized and for years, each community tried to advance small portions of the project individually.
The Village of Lowellville, Ohio, the most downstream community on Ohio’s portion of the Mahoning River was the first to find some success in their restoration efforts by capturing funding from Ohio EPA to remove a low-head dam. That first domino started a more intensive and collaborative effort led by the MPO for the region, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.
This map illustrates Eastgate’s three phase vision for the restoration of the Mahoning River and the adjacent communities.
Eastgate has recognized the Mahoning River as an asset, not a liability, to the region. The river, per the Ohio EPA’s 2013 biological and chemical survey, is making a comeback both in water quality and fish diversity. Eastgate wants to continue the upward progression of the river’s health by working with communities along the river to remove the remaining low-head dams and restore the river to its natural, free flowing state. The primary drive for this restoration is to improve water quality conditions, but the communities are also envisioning the additional social and economic benefits that come along with ecological recovery.
This energy has led to deeper conversation about what is possible if all the neighboring communities can coalesce around this central idea. In 2019, Eastgate had a Corridor Evaluation Study conducted that identified lands with the greatest riverfront access potential for recreation and future greenway restoration initiatives while promoting economic development by offering connectivity to the existing business, recreation, education, and entertainment amenities. This study was the first step toward a vision for true regional development, which can be a tremendously difficult task for any region, let alone one where development can be hard to come by.
Youngstown Mayor Tito Brown explains an idea for the riverfront in downtown Youngstown at the first Steering Committee meeting for the Mahoning River Corridor Revitalization Plan.
Following the conclusion of the Corridor Evaluation Study, Eastgate continued the planning efforts by securing a grant to conduct a more thorough regional study. This Mahoning River Corridor Revitalization Plan aims to “create a shared vision for spurring economic and tourism growth in the region, while also protecting our natural resources and providing community members a place to enjoy the great outdoors.” The plan will include both an overall regional strategy as well as 13 individual implementation strategies, one for each of the riverfront communities, with a focus on ecological improvement, recreation, and economic stability and future investment opportunities. The planning process is expected to wrap up in June of 2021.
In the midst of the regional planning process, progress is being made on the removal of the remaining dams. In total there are 9 dams along the Lower Mahoning River and the plan is to work upstream starting in Lowellville, which is currently being removed. Next is the dam in the City of Struthers, which is expected to be removed next year, and three dams in the City of Youngstown, which are in the process of securing funding. The next dam upstream is in the City of Girard and is the largest and most costly. The project team is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to identify a suitable plan for removal. Continuing upstream, there is one in Warren Township and one in the City of Warren that are preparing to identify and apply for funding. Lastly, the dam in Leavittsburg, which is the only proposed dam removal to receive some pushback related to water levels in the river after the project is completed. These concerns are being evaluated as a part of the process of preparing the project.
A low-head dam being removed in the Village of Lowellville, Ohio. The first of nine dams the region hopes to remove to restore the Mahoning River to its natural, free-flowing state.
It is still early in the process for this large regional project, but the communities are already seeing some successes. The regional cooperation has allowed additional grants to come in for various improvements, like improving access to the water by installing new kayak and canoe launch areas, and in the Village of Lowellville there has been interest shown by developers to capitalize on the improvements by envisioning new mixed-use developments along the riverfront.
For a long time, the Mahoning River was an obstacle – an unfortunate casualty of the past that the local communities ignored because a restoration effort was bigger than any one community could handle alone. This project has shown that a collaborative effort can create a mutually beneficial asset that enhances the social, economic, and environmental aspects of each community.
For additional information on the progress of the Mahoning River Restoration, visit Eastgate’s website – eastgatecog.org/mahoningriver
About the Author: Justin Mondok
Justin Mondok is a Planner with Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Youngstown-Warren area in Ohio. Justin has 7 years of experience working in regional environmental and transportation planning and volunteers with community-based nonprofits focused on community development and quality of life improvements.