Sunday, October 31, 1999

River on the rebound

Great Miami, once a virtual sewer, has grown healthier - but it's not out of danger

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fish are returning to the Great Miami.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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        Egrets and herons soar above the dingy old factories and spindly young trees dotting the banks of the Great Miami River, witnesses to its troubled past and renewed potential.

        Freed by Clean Water Act enforcement from an industrial legacy of belching black smokestacks and pipes oozing muck, the river has brought itself back from the brink. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) officials, who closed down the polluters then left the river alone, are surprised by these positive results of their latest report.

        “A river that was in poor and very poor condition in the '70s and early '80s is now in very good condition and, in some places, excellent condition,” said Chris Yoder, manager of the OEPA division of surface water, ecological assessment unit. “We really see the Great Miami River as a success story. ... But how long is it going to last?”

        The river that feeds the region's primary water supply is not yet out of danger. Pesticides and fertilizer from farms, dirt and oil from cars and urban chemicals run into the river with every snow melt or rainfall in the 5,300 square-mile watershed. Rapid development overtaking green fields increases that runoff and floods.

        People have replaced industry as the primary polluters.

        “The way the river goes is going to have an impact on a lot of things. It can have an impact on our drinking water, absolutely,” said Lara Whitley Binder, wellfield protection coordinator for the Hamilton to New Baltimore Groundwater Consortium.

Jeff Lierer of Colerain Twp. lives on the river with his dog, Roamer.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        The 170.3-mile Great Miami River flows over and into the trillion-gallon underground aquifer that alone provides water for more than 95 percent of the people and industry in Southwest Ohio and border towns of Southeast Indiana.

        It draws businesses and tourists along its length from Indian Lake in Logan County to the Ohio River. Clean water feeds the economy.

        Rare beaver and sensitive blue sucker fish now dart through the Great Miami, signs of renewed health. Anglers find a diverse and plentiful catch of catfish and carp, smallmouth bass and saugeye, but lingering riverbed contamination and infrequently updated health advisories warn them not to eat much of it.

        Most people remember past pollution and don't want to taste the fish at all. Like-minded boaters drawn by the waterway's beauty dip their oars, but not their feet, under the surface.

View of the river from Bernie Fiedeldey's home on East Miami River Road in Colerain Twp.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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        “It used to be very murky. It had a bad odor to it. You used to wonder if you would catch a fish with four eyes,” said 28-year-old Michele Hill of Ross, who has always hiked the riverside land in Colerain Township owned by her family for generations. She doesn't yet trust the river, but is encouraged by recent change.

        “There's so much life down here now,” she said, standing on the bank. “It's just started perking up ... and I'm so excited.”

        Stirred up over similar success on rivers nationwide, regulators and environmentalists are testing the waters for a new level of land use control that would control agriculture and preserve riverside grasses and trees.

        “All of this is an evolution of the Clean Water Act. It is crawling out of the water and onto the land,” said University of Cincinnati aquatic ecology professor Mike Miller. “This is the next big thing and it's going to be big on the Great Miami River, as well as on the Little Miami River and the Scioto River, because these are (Ohio's) last big healthy rivers.”

Polluntants linger
        The Great Miami River is vital to the valley bearing its name.

        Settlers were drawn by the water supply and stayed rather than forge the raging river. They built forts on its banks to defend their homes and wage late-18th century Indian wars.

Threats to water
        In the 1830s it was linked to the Erie Canal and supplied water for distilleries, paper mills and more burgeoning industry. The river's current carried crops and goods to market and whisked garbage away.

        Today, people know that what goes into the water does not just flow away. Pollution in the Great Miami River pours into the Mississippi River and contributes to a lifeless zone in the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

        “That blows me away. That's a big scale. To say that farms in Ohio are affecting the Gulf of Mexico,” said Bill Mitsch, professor of natural resources and environmental science at Ohio State University. “We're finally finding out that if I solve a problem up here ... I'm creating a big problem downstream.”

        Regulators got rid of the obvious offenders — the spewing pipes and leaking landfills of “point-source” polluters — after the 1972 Clean Water Act. .

        Still, regulators found that water problems linger.

        Lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from past spills deteriorate slowly and linger on the riverbed. Mercury contamination affects all of Ohio's surface waters.

        Nitrogen and phosphorus roll in from farm pesticides and dishwasher soap residue, fertilizing oxygen-eating algae that choke out fish. Chemicals from old industry, buried on the riverbed, are stirred up by gravel mines and scattered downriver. Sediment blown from tilled fields kills river organisms. Vehicle and urban runoffs are poison.

        These “nonpoint-source” polluters are hard to trace because they are many; they are tough to regulate because they are us all.

        “I think one of the challenges here is to recognize that we're all part of the problem and we're all going to have to deal with it. That's the biggest hurdle,” said Jeff Skelding, of the Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio's largest grass-roots environmental advocacy group.

        Homes and offices are cleaner than chemical-dependent industry, but they eat up water-absorbent land. Controlled farming and saving green space are the keys to river-friendly land use, scientists say.

        OEPA officials said they will miss their goal of cleaning up 75 percent of the state's waterways by 2000. But allowing “buffer zones” of trees and vegetation to grow along riverbanks could be the key to later success.

        That could impinge on some low-income folks who work and live on cheap floodplain land.

        “I've seen a lot of people (whose homes) look like they were going to slide down in the river. But I guess that's all they can afford,” said 68- year-old Alma Allen of some of her neighbors on East Miami River Road in Miami Township. “They don't have any money and they don't know what to do. They just need a place to live.”

        And buffer zones could limit riverfront construction.

        “Those kind of threats will always be a threat to river systems, as long as there's positive population growth and economic development,” said Randy Hoover, aquatic biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' (ODNR) Wildlife Division. “It's obviously not the way to treat a river system. But this land is too valuable to just set aside for the river, that's what most people think.”

Cautious recovery
        The value of the Great Miami River goes far beneath the surface.

        As the region develops, people demand more water. Wells pump faster from the aquifer and the river that feeds it. If the river is dirty, the supply could be contaminated.

        “Just because we're fine right now, there's no guarantee it will be fine in the future. So it's important that the wells we do have are protected,” said Ms. Whitley Binder, whose water consortium pumps 65 million gallons per day from the aquifer.

        Companies also demand a clean water supply — and officials worry that without one, taxpaying and job-supplying firms will locate elsewhere.

        The river also attracts people — anglers and paddlers and photographers and sightseers — who will spend time and money in shops, restaurants, hotels and gas stations.

        Chris Weisman, 30, drives from his Oregonia home near the Little Miami River about 35 miles to a spot in Colerain Township where his father took him as a boy. His perception of the river changed over the years, boyhood innocence turned to fear in the early '80s when he saw pollution- induced fish kills and floating oily goo.

        “I wouldn't eat anything out of here. I'm just sport fishing,” he said, taking a long pull of bottled water and dropping his bait for the next catfish or carp to swim by. “I hate that it's like that. But right now, my fish (for eating) all come from Kroger.”

        The Ohio Health Department has a statewide advisory warning children younger than 6 and women of childbearing age not to eat any river fish due to mercury contamination.

        On the Great Miami, a notice issued in June 1997 advises anglers not to eat more than one meal per month of channel catfish; common carp; or white, largemouth, smallmouth and rock bass. Since January 1988, there is a standing caution against consuming suckers.

        Nevertheless, OEPA says the increased diversity and number of fish indicate the river is cleaner and healthier than in many years.

What color is the river?
        The river has always drawn interest and action, from settlers and industrialists to modern regulators.

        But the untamed river flooded and stunted progress in 1866 and 1898. It washed through the Dayton area in 1913, taking more than 200 lives.

        When the water receded, resolute survivors built the massive stone dams, levees and floodgates of the Miami Conservancy District.

        “After 1913, a lot of people in Hamilton, Middletown and Dayton kind of turned their back on the river and it turned into an industrial sewer,” said Jim Blount, 64, a lifelong Hamilton resident, historian and newspaperman. “They looked at the river and saw fear. They didn't see opportunity for (non-industrial) development. It was understandable.”

        So the powerful river was abandoned to unregulated factories, in an age before people focused on protecting the environment.

        “Before there were pollution laws, one of the jokes in Hamilton used to be "What color is the river today?' and it might reflect what Armco (steel) was doing in Middletown ... or it might be a particular dye they were using at the paper mills,” Mr. Blount said.

        “That's when it started to become a sewer.”

        Faced with ugly sights and smells, dead fish and a loss of wildlife, the children and grandchildren of the flood survivors closed their eyes to the river, too. Many wrote it off as too damaged to be revived.

        But that is changing. Whitewater Township Trustee Hubert Brown, who lives on the banks of the Whitewater River, which feeds into the Great Miami, sees a generation emerging that can appreciate the river without being tainted by its past.

        “I think the impact is less today,” he said. “(The Great Miami River) is a hidden treasure for the future. I think we will wake up one day and see it as that.”

"A living barometer'
        Already, regulators are stirring.

        In a recently completed study of water quality from just north of Dayton to the Ohio River, OEPA scientists measured its chemical content, but focused on the variety and health of fish and bugs.

        “It is a living barometer, kind of like the canary in the coal mine. The better the river is (in biological performance), the more likely it is to support other uses” like fishing and swimming, Mr. Yoder said.

        OEPA is pleased with the results.

        The Great Miami River ranked “good” just south of Indian Lake, then “exceptional” all the way to Dayton. It is mostly good through the city and south to Middletown, with a few fair patches. And from Middletown to the Ohio River, the most heavily industrialized areas, the “poor” rating of a decade ago has disappeared — most stretches rated fair and a few are good.

        The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is testing the waters to assess how the Great Miami is affected by people, hoping the data will be useful to planners.

        “One of the main things we're trying to look at is the impact of land use,” said supervisory hydrologist Gary Rowe. “Urban sprawl is a big issue these days and its impact on water quality. I don't think we have a handle on it.”

        Working with the federal agencies, Cincinnati Water Works is studying how increased well pumping and runoff affect the aquifer and local wellfields. The Miami Conservancy District is getting started on a “river index” — a daily ranking of water quality for public release along with pollen counts and ozone levels.

"Take back the river'
        The group Friends of the Great Miami River wants to work with regulators and local officials to improve public access and draw attention to the waterway. They want to guide land use decisions and raise money to buy property that no one else is willing or able to protect from abuse.

        “We're about the people of Ohio educating themselves and organizing themselves to take back the river,” said coordinator Melissa English. “Winning battles in the court of public opinion is extremely important. There's been some indifference, frankly, in protecting our waterways. And we have to work through it.”

        Professor Mitsch, also a consultant to the USGS, said the efforts of Friends are part of a national trend.

        “I think it'll take half a century to do it, but I'm optimistic that we're finally seeing that we can have our commerce, we can have our agriculture and our industry but we've got to do it right and leave some nature there as a buffer. And if you do that, the river can survive.”

Riverside residents expect change
Gravel mining altering character of the river

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