Local officials are warning recreational boaters to keep off the Cuyahoga River after heavy rains have increased the water level and the city of Akron has been releasing millions of gallons of water from its reservoir, Lake Rockwell in Portage County.

While only a couple of rescues were necessary in the city of Cuyahoga Falls over the past few weeks, first responders upstream in Kent have rescued at least 20 people so far this month.

Cuyahoga Falls firefighters have responded to two recent calls on the river, said city spokesperson Kelli Crawford-Smith.

One person was rescued on June 11, she said, after a man became stranded. On June 21, two people were rescued during the night.

She said most people are heeding the city’s warning to stay off the river, and most local kayaking and canoeing businesses have shut down until the water recedes. 

"We have been incredibly fortunate that people are listening," Crawford-Smith said. 

Water levels are expected to remain high on the Cuyahoga River, even if the rain stops, because the city of Akron is releasing extra water to lower Lake Rockwell so engineers can repair the dam. The Akron water treatment plant sits near the dam on the southern end of Lake Rockwell, which carries the Cuyahoga River south to Kent and then Summit County.

"The city of Akron performed mandatory maintenance at the Lake Rockwell Dam, which required the reservoir level to be lowered through a controlled release," Akron city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said in an email. "The city of Akron notified the appropriate communities downstream, and a meeting was held with Portage County Emergency Management Authority yesterday (June 24).

"River conditions downstream may remain higher than normal even when the rain water recedes, until the maintenance is completed."

Nischt said 200 million gallons was released to lower the reservoir by three feet.

The repairs are expected to last a few days to a week.

In the meantime, the Kent fire department continues to warn people to stay off the Cuyahoga River, especially as it speeds through the city.

"I think most people, if they understand how dangerous it is, they will heed the warning," said Kent Fire Chief John Tosko. Some people are going on the river no matter what, he added.

On average, the department says it rescues about six people over the summer. Just three weeks into June, 20 people have been pulled to safety.

Water rescues often involve "strainers," trees that fall across the river in storms. Water goes under, but kayakers and those riding on inflatable tube get clothes-lined or knocked off their watercraft.

A particularly dangerous part of the river is immediately downstream of the Main Street Bridge in Kent, Tosko said. That’s where most of the water rescues have taken place.

Tosko said he can’t forbid people from piloting the river. He also can’t fine or charge them for the cost of rescues. Kent City Council would have to legislate that kind of disincentive.

But he can put up warning signs along the river, which firemen were doing Tuesday at most of the access points in Kent, including at Ravenna Road, Riverbend Park, the West Main Street Bridge, Tannery Park and the Middlebury boat ramp.

Tosko said the rescues are also dangerous to the firemen, even though they are well trained and have good equipment.

"It is a risk," Tosko said. "Some guys have to get into the water and swim over to people because they are barely hanging on. They have the danger of drowning themselves."

Reporter Kaitlyn McGarvey contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Eileen McClory at 330-298-1128, emcclory@recordpub.com or @Eileen_McClory. Reach Doug Livingston at dlivignston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.