Chapter 10

Akron Gets the Nod (excerpt)

BACK IN THE EARLY 1900s Akron, Ohio, had a serious problem on its hands. Its population had boomed by 60 percent during the previous decade, making the city of seventy thousand people so overcrowded that boarding houses were renting beds in shifts. The condensed living conditions were bad enough, but Akron’s biggest problem was water. The local water supply had not kept pace with the booming growth rate—and what water there was, was so tainted that it often made people sick. Summit Lake, the shallow water hole that had long been one of Akron’s main sources of supply, was growing increasingly fetid. In desperation, local water officials sank more than seventy wells in and around Akron during the early 1900s, but the overtapped gravel aquifer wasn’t productive enough to meet the rising demand. When fire swept through town in 1909, there wasn’t enough water in the city’s system to pressurize hydrants, leaving firefighters helpless, and much of the city burned. Later that same year state officials in Columbus condemned Akron’s water supply as a health hazard.1

Part of Akron’s problem was that the city’s water came from a derelict private utility called the Akron Water Works Company. Back in the late 1800s the company had no problem meeting local demand with a thirty-five-foot well. But as the town rapidly expanded, Akron Water Works was forced to tap Summit Lake, and that’s when the water quality began to deteriorate. As demand for the city’s water skyrocketed and the shores of Summit Lake became increasingly developed, water quality plummeted. Akron Water Works was either unwilling or unable to resolve the situation, forcing city leaders to step in. “It may be said that the quality of water supplied by the Akron Water Works Company has never been satisfactory for any length of time,” proclaimed a city report. “Conditions surrounding Summit Lake [are] seriously contaminated and vegetable organisms have been present in such quantity as to affect the physical character of the water [and] render it offensive to sight and smell.”2

In January 1911 city leaders hired an engineering team to thoroughly examine Akron’s water situation and propose a series of options. After months of study, the engineers recommended that Akron consider a completely new water source: the Cuyahoga River. They proposed placing a dam across the Cuyahoga upstream from Akron near the Village of Kent, thereby creating a reservoir from which Akron could pipe water roughly ten miles to its residents. The engineers estimated that the reservoir could store enough water to meet the needs of 350,000 people, and they suggested either acquiring the private water utility’s infrastructure or replacing it with a new, modern urban plumbing system. In submitting the report to Akron’s city council, the mayor strongly urged his colleagues to adopt the engineers’ recommendations. “Akron is facing one of the most critical situations in the history of the city . . . we must act, and act at once.”3 And act the council did. On September 6, 1911, the council adopted the engineers’ recommendations and then negotiated an option to purchase the Akron Water Works Company for $815,000.

While the engineers were drafting their plan for the Cuyahoga, Akron’s politicians were busy working the halls of the statehouse in Columbus. What they wanted was unprecedented legislation granting Akron special water rights. The recent water crisis had given the city a scare, and officials wanted water that the city could own, not just use. Water rights are pervasive in the western United States, where the prior appropriation doctrine permits people to own water rights without the burden of having to share them with others. But in the eastern United States, water law is based on what’s known as the riparian reasonable use doctrine, which is very different from western water law. Riparian reasonable use holds that those who own property along a lake or stream may withdraw all the water they need as long as their water use is “reasonable” and doesn’t infringe on other property owners who also have access to the same water body. In other words, in the East people don’t own water rights, but they have guaranteed rights to access water, within certain limits. That wasn’t good enough for Akron. Instead, the city was asking the state legislature to take the unusual step of nudging aside the riparian reasonable use standard and granting the city special western-like rights to water from the Cuyahoga River watershed. That strategic decision would lay the groundwork for nearly one hundred years of water conflict in the greater Akron area. And by the end of the twentieth century, Akron would become one of the most heated water battlegrounds in the entire Great Lakes region.....