Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Meander Reservoir

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Meander Reservoir and the communities (shaded) that it serves

Mom always used to say there was no drinking water as good as Youngstown’s drinking water. I was not quite as opinionated, but on a hot summer day, there was nothing as refreshing as a cool glass of water.

It wasn’t always that way. Until 1932, Youngstown got its water from the Mahoning River. Yes, the Mahoning River. The old water works on West Avenue, built in 1905, had the unenviable task of making that water fit for consumption. Even then, the Mahoning was the most polluted river in Ohio, with temperatures that sometimes reached 104 degrees. They managed to make it safe to drink, but taste was another matter altogether.

A petition effort began in 1920 to form what became the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District and find a new source of water for Youngstown and surrounding communities. The district was comprised of Youngstown and Niles, along with McDonald, with other smaller communities receiving water via these three. Youngstown and Niles approved the district in 1927, with a $2,450,000 bond issue approved the following year to purchase land around Meander Creek and build the Mineral Ridge Dam that would create the Meander Reservoir. The work was completed and the reservoir filled in 1932. At the time, the reservoir held 7.5 billion gallons of water and could supply the city’s needs for two years. In 1958, a nine-mile pipeline from the Berlin Pumping Station to Meander Reservoir created additional capacity and a backup during periods of extended drought.

Today, the reservoir district comprises 7,510 acres, of which 2,010 are water. The reservoir capacity is 11 billion gallons, with a 50 foot high dam that is 3550 long, with a 260 foot spillway. Approximately 21.6 million gallons of water are delivered to Youngstown and surrounding communities. Youngstown and the communities it distributes water to use about 74 percent of the water, Niles 24 percent, and McDonald, 2 percent.

Safe drinking water is critical to the life of a community, as Flint, Michigan illustrates. One of the most significant safeguards to the reservoir are the 4 million evergreen trees on a preserve of land surrounding the reservoir that serve as a buffer to contaminants. The Vickers Nature Preserve, just south of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District land, also serves to protect the tributaries to Meander Creek. With rare exceptions, fishing and boating are prohibited. In recent years, upgrades were made to the water treatment plant.

Still there are concerns. Algal blooms, like those that have occurred on Lake Erie and other Ohio lakes could render Meander water unusable. There have been discussions of routing water directly from Berlin Lake to the treatment plant, by-passing Meander, but this would involve rate increases, and these have to be weighed against the likelihood of a bloom or other contamination of the reservoir. Agricultural and lawn fertilizers are the principle causes of such blooms so area residents have a critical role to play in preventing runoffs of these chemicals that feed algal blooms.

The other significant threat is contamination from oil and gas wells, the closest less than a mile from the reservoir. All told, according to a Vindicator article, there are 182 gas and oil wells in the vicinity, eighteen miles of pipeline, as well as a 72 inch above-ground sewage line from Canfield to the Meander Creek Treatment Station. There are also risks from the bridges over the reservoir, and contingency plans are in place to handle hazardous material spills into the reservoir. MVSD publishes fracking lab results on its website, with test results in roughly three month intervals, as well as other water purity tests.

Meander Reservoir has provided safe drinking water to the Mahoning Valley on an uninterrupted basis since 1932. Government officials, businesses, and local residents all have a role to play in ensuring the continuing safety of the water. While algal blooms can occur fairly suddenly, contamination from gas and oil wells seem to be a serious threat that could render the reservoir unusable for a long period of time or permanently. The fact that the Mahoning River is only just beginning to come back to life after forty years should be a warning. At present, if an “incident” took place, the 220,000 people who depend on the reservoir might have to use bottled water for an extended period of time, not unlike Flint.

Meander Reservoir, photo courtesy of Tom Volinchak

I hope many more generations talk about the great taste of Youngstown water, have no fears of what comes out of the tap, and enjoy the beauty of the forest preserve and clear blue waters of Meander Reservoir. It is an irreplaceable treasure!