white's mill downstream

A view of White's Mill from downstream along the artificial Hocking River channel.

The City of Athens says it wants to make the area around White’s Mill safer and turn the artificial Hocking River channel below the mill into a usable recreation space. But the owners of White's Mill say they have their own plans — and the city has kept them out of the loop about its ideas.

City officials want the U.S Army Corps of Engineers Huntington (WV) District to conduct a study of the river, which was rerouted after floods wreaked havoc on the OU campus and Athens community in 1964 and 1968.

At the time, the river ran parallel to West Union Street up to the Athens County Fairgrounds, veering southwest toward the Athens Asylum before curving back to run under the Richland Avenue bridge behind Peden Stadium. It was a more sinuous course that ran through the middle of the lower OU campus.

In 1969, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began creating a new channel for the river, starting just below White's Mill. The project, completed in 1971, not only shifted nearly five miles of the river's course through Athens, but also realigned and straightened the waterway.

Remains of the river's original course can be seen on the Ohio University campus: a small creek that runs behind Boyd Hall, under the Richland Avenue Bridge, behind Baker Center, through Emeriti Park and under South Green Drive to empty into the artificial channel between the Ping Center and Walter Fieldhouse.

The modern corps doesn't undertake such drastic measures to avert flooding. “Does the project as it was constructed currently provide flood-risk protection to Athens? I would say certainly yes,” David Humphreys, former completed projects inspector for the corps, said in 2019. “Would it be something we would build at Athens today if we reformulated that project and started from scratch? Probably not.”

While the project may have saved millions of dollars in flooding damage over the past 50 years, City Service Safety Director Andy Stone said the city has “historically looked at (the river) as a problem rather than an asset,” especially because the new channel is not exactly pretty to look at.

“That's a river only an engineer could love — it's a big drainage ditch,” Stone said.

The city wants to turn the river into an asset by converting it into a recreational space.

“I think one of the goals is looking at that river and saying how can we make that river an asset for the people of Athens, the university, and visitors?” said City Planner Paul Logue.

The dam at White's Mill

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson says that removing the remaining portions of the dam at White's Mill would not only improve safety — two deaths have happened there in the past 10 years — but also increase recreational opportunities.

“It would be nice to have people float from further up north and make it across the falls and meander all the way to where the county has put their portage in Canaanville,” Patterson said.

The city emphasizes that any plans are preliminary and depend on the outcome of a hoped-for study by the Corps of Engineers.

However, Rodney Dowler and Tyler Schloss, owners of White's Mill — including dam rights established in the 1800s — said the city has not been up front about what its plans for the river and the dam.

"The city has not bothered to let us know their thoughts on our property even when asked," Dowler and Schloss wrote in an Oct. 21 Facebook post. "The Mayor denied having any plans for the falls when we inquired. Call it what you will but he is either lying to us or everyone else."

In the post, Dowler and Schloss said that White's Mill has already fixed several issues with the dam, with the work inspected and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers. They have their own plans for the dam, they wrote, and welcomed the city to inquire about.

Whatever happens, though, the business owners say it's impossible to make the falls safe for boating or other recreation.

"We certainly agree the falls are dangerous but they are always going to be, as nature made them. A fall. You can't make it safer," Dowler and Schloss wrote in the post. "More deaths will come if they try to make it 'safer,' way more deaths. Sorry the powers that be don't see it that way or bother to ask."

Patterson attributed the business owners' Facebook post to miscommunication.

“I’m at a loss, I really am, I truly believe that Tyler Schloss, If i did indicate to him and — I don't recall the conversation —  but allegedly I did, okay, but (my statement to him) is accurate, there is no plan. We’re just trying to find our way,” Patterson said.

The city began talking about river safety at White's Mill in 2018, after two men drowned in separate accidents that summer. At that time, Schloss said he had talked with Patterson about the dam and wanted to be included in discussions about the area.

He also said at the time that removing the dam's remains won't change the inherent dangers of a waterfall, debris and flash flooding.

“I feel like it’s an attractive nuisance as it is, and if they go work on it in any way, people are going to think it’s safe to use, and that’s going to make it more of an attractive nuisance, when there’s already a 30-foot undertow and debris in the water,” Schloss said then.

Other concerns

Representatives from the Corps of Engineers visited Athens earlier this week for a preliminary look at the river and to accept feedback from city officials, Logue said. A spokesperson for The Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that the agency was in contact with the city about a possible study.

Mark Holdcroft, administrator of the Hocking Conservancy District, said he  supported the city’s efforts to obtain a study on the river.

“Clearly everyone wants to see that issue addressed so hopefully there will be some positive aspects that can come out of this,” Holdcroft said.

Patterson said Friday that he would like to involve White’s Mill, Ohio University, and OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital in any possible Army Corps study. The Ohio EPA would likely become involved if a Corps study recommended changes to the area, Stone said. 

“We’re going to have to have a lot of stakeholders as a part of the study because we’re going to need their input,” Patterson said.

The city is already getting advice from the city’s Sustainability Commission and others with expertise in biology and environmental science, such as Jasmine Facun, who studied the riparian area along the artificial river channel for her master's degree in environmental studies at Ohio University.

“I should be clear, I rely on people like Jasmine because they have that knowledge — and (people) bringing forward what they have learned,” Logue said.

Facun's research proposed a suite of changes to improve biodiversity along the channel and encourage pollinators like bees and butterflies to return. She suggested mowing the channel banks only once annually, in mid-fall, to preserve habitat for insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and use the resources devoted to more frequent mowing "toward more thoughtful management" of plants, such as removing invasive and noxious species and removing saplings.

In her thesis, though, Facun acknowledged that the channel cannot be made natural without impeding its utility for flood management to some degree. Allowing trees to grow along the earthworks would reduce the channel's ability to funnel water past the city, Holdcroft said.

Even if trees were considered desirable for the riverside, Patterson said, the compaction of earth during the rerouting process would make tree growth very challenging.

“Everyone has noticed it is difficult to grow trees along there because of the compaction — hopefully that could be addressed,” Patterson said.

City officials stressed the research into the river is still in its infancy. Stone said the city would be seeking the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities” grant, which offers funding for mitigation of natural disasters like flooding.

Stone also added local partners like the city and the conservancy district could contribute to a project either financially or in-kind through labor and resources.

“There's no reason the Hocking River can’t be a water trail through southeastern Ohio — we just need to put a little work in Athens,” Stone said.

This story was significantly changed on Friday, Oct. 22, to correct typographical errors and to include input from the owners of White's Mill as well as comments from Mayor Patterson.

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