Examining Summit Lake: Experts conducting study of 100-acre lake

January 26, 2017
By Bob Downing

A team of environmental experts will soon be looking at contaminated sediments at the bottom of Summit Lake and water quality in the lake. Those toxic-laced sediments will be tested and analyzed in a fresh examination of the 100-acre lake in South Akron that is being sponsored by the Trust for Public Land and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

That new environmental analysis will begin soon – with initial results expected to be released this spring. The testing by Solon-based Partners Environmental and Stow-based EnviroScience will like take up to a year, although no time frame has been set for completing the project, officials said. It will be the first comprehensive look at Summit Lake’s environmental issues in 40 years, according to project supporters.

The water quality will also be examined, but fish testing is not part of the current plan that will also look at vacant and public lands around the lake. In the past, agencies reported that the Summit Lake water has been getting cleaner and that most fish populations were healthy and thriving, especially largemouth bass.

On Jan. 25, the Trust for Public Land and the Knight Foundation launched the new initiative with a public kickoff aimed at revitalizing Summit Lake, increasing access to recreational facilities and promoting reinvestment and economic development in neighborhoods near the lake. The project also supports the goals of the Akron Civic Commons project,  which seeks to boost connections to civic assets like Summit Lake and surrounding greenspace while fostering social inclusion. “It’s a rare and wonderful thing to have a historic lake located in the center of a major city like this,” said Matt Schmidt, program director of the Trust for Public Land’s Cleveland office, in a statement. “We are honored to have the opportunity to work with Akron residents and Knight Foundation to restore this resource to its historic glory.”

The Knight Foundation is contributing $195,300 for the project. The funding will be used to assess the lake’s eco-condition and to plan for its clean-up and restoration. The Akron-based Northeast Ohio Four-County Regional Planning and Development Organization (NEFCO) is providing an additional $110,460 in federal funds.

Fishing and boating are permitted at Summit Lake, but some uses of the lake have been prohibited due to up to 25 feet of sediments with toxic heavy metals on the lake bottom. The lake’s contaminated sediments are a legacy from Akron’s rubber and manufacturing industries. The lake water was once a cesspool due to industrial pollution. The lake has an estimated 29 million cubic feet of contaminated sludge, according to previous estimates by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. That is enough sediment to fill Akron’s Rubber Bowl from floor to rim 150 times.

It is a problem of magnitude: Summit Lake has more contaminated sediments than other urban lakes in Ohio. The sediments have had adverse biological effects and impact water quality negatively, the EPA has said. The agency said the overall sediment quality is poor. That sludge sits atop 44 million cubic feet of gray organic peat on the lake bottom.

It is far too early to say what remedial steps might be suggested or what might be done to clean up Summit Lake, and how it would be paid for is also an unknown, said Schmidt of the Trust for Public Land in an interview. Some have said that cost of dredging the lake would be prohibitive. Summit Lake is 4,525 feet from north to south, up to 1,775 feet from east to west and up to 43 feet deep and dredging it could cost as much as $500 million because of the polluted sediments. That includes metals like zinc, nickel, lead, arsenic, copper, mercury and cadmium from industrial discharges over the years. Those sediments of silty clay have been noted in EPA reports since the late 1970s, along with oils and greases, high levels of phosphorus and bacteria from sewer runoff. The levels of metals are highest at the southern end of the lake.

The Ohio EPA last tested at Summit Lake in 2011-2012. The contaminated sediments are only a problem when disturbed. That’s why power boats in excess of 6 miles per hour and scuba diving have been banned at Summit Lake. Swimming is prohibited by the state, but not because of the sediments. The state only allows swimming in its lakes at designated supervised beaches and there are none at state-owned Summit Lake. The fish in Summit Lake are generally safe to eat, except bottom-dwelling carp and catfish.

Summit Lake has a long and colorful history. It was a key link on the historic Ohio & Erie Canal from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. The lake was once Akron’s drinking water supply but by the early 1900s, the water smelled terrible and had an unpleasant taste. It carried diseases like typhoid. It was also Akron’s playground with three amusement parks, dance halls and boat rides at the end of trolley lines in the 1920s and 1930s. It later served as a source of water for major industries in Akron and Barberton including Firestone and B.F. Goodrich.