Olentangy River Restoration A Year From Completion

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The Olentangy River's water level dropped significantly when the 5th Avenue dam was removed.
The Olentangy River's water level dropped significantly when the 5th Avenue dam was removed.

Restoration of the Olentangy River on the Ohio State University campus continues. The work began last year when the 5th Avenue Dam was torn down. That left the Olentangy with a ragged appearance. The Olentangy’s bruises will take time to heal.

The Olentangy is now so shallow that giant pieces of earth-moving equipment easily move up and down the middle of the river.

Recently cyclist Matt Carmean stopped to watch the restoration work from a spot on the Olentangy bike trail. He and others are appalled by the mud flats and piles of debris that were exposed when the waters receded.

“I knew they were going to take this dam out so that this river I had known for all these years – it’s going to change. But first it was kind of shocking, you know? All those muddy islands appearing but I knew it was better for the river,” Carmean says.

Carmean is an artist. He says one of his favorite subjects is the Olentangy.

“I’ve been coming to this river for almost 30 years. I paint and I draw. I first drew it in the spring of ’85. And you know, I just come to it and look at it all the time,” Carmean says.

There won’t be scenic vistas on the Olentangy near the university anytime soon. It will take years for plants along the riverbanks to flourish. Ohio State University’s Laura Shinn has been planning the restoration for 10 years. She says crews will begin planting this fall.

“They’re going to be planting a pretty robust planting scheme; they’ll be planting native vegetation, trees, shrubs, ground covers, and all things that will help maintain water quality and are natural to a river corridor,” Shinn says.

The $7 million project will also make the Olentangy more environmentally functional. George Zonders is a spokesman for the city of Columbus.

“There’s going to be a series of what we would naturally see in a free-flowing river; a series of pools and riffles,” Zonders says. “The riffles will be the shallow areas obviously that during a normal flow where the water flowing over the rocks will help oxygenate the water, and then the pools are the places where you’d expect fish and other sorts of wildlife to be residing.”

Bulldozers and backhoes are now narrowing the river’s course, making it a more meandering, winding stream. Ohio State’s Laura Shinn says the project holds promise for other rivers in the U.S.

“Quite honestly it’s probably one of the most extensive restorations of a river in a very urban, very developed area. I think it holds a lot of promise for setting an example for other folks,” Shinn says.

Major work on the Olentangy will be complete in about a year’s time. But the river won’t have a more natural look for many years to come. Matt Carmean is willing to wait.

“It looks awful now but that’s really a blink of the eye – that’s the short term. That’s really the blink of the eye when you consider the long life that this river is going to have,” Carmean says. “So it’s a good thing that they’re doing it even though it’s so different to my eyes because I’ve been looking at it for so long. Just have to wait and it’ll be something to see.”

“Hang in there, folks!”