Area waterways still ‘impaired,’ some getting better

Waterways in the Miami Valley appear to be at least as healthy as they were two years ago, according to experts who note area streams continue to have contamination issues but some are getting better.

The Ohio EPA recently released its statewide water quality report for 2022 as required by the federal Clean Water Act.

The report, issued every other year, describes the general condition of Ohio’s lakes and streams, noting those that don’t meet federal or state water quality goals and those that have improved.

This year’s report adds assessments of the Ohio River, which hadn’t previously been included; and notes that if algae levels in Sandusky Bay on Lake Erie continue improving, recreational use could be allowed there after the next two years.

For its assessment of the Ohio River, the Ohio EPA relies on an eight-state commission: the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or ORSANCO. That group handles testing, standards and cleanup programs, and coordinates emergency response for spills into the Ohio River. The ORSANCO report for 2022 has not yet been issued; the 2022 Ohio EPA report relies on the 2020 ORSANCO report.

According to that 2020 report, the whole of the Ohio River is “fully supporting” its aquatic life and for use as a public water supply.

About two-thirds of the river is “impaired” for recreational use. That’s more than 641 miles — five miles more than in 2018. And the whole length of the river is “partially supporting” the edibility of fish. Elevated levels of Dioxin and PCBs are present in some fish, the report found.

The Ohio EPA report focuses heavily on Lake Erie, but includes brief sections on the main waterways of the Miami Valley: the Stillwater River, Mad River, Great and Little Miami and their tributaries.

The results for the Miami Valley look like a microcosm of what the Ohio Environmental Council sees statewide, tracking sewage overflows, sediment and nutrient releases, said Pete Bucher, interim advocacy center manager for OEC.

The report compares testing results with goals for aquatic life, suitability for recreation, human health effects (from eating fish) and drinking water purity. If an area is not meeting the goal in one or more of those categories, it’s classified as “impaired.”

Out of the 1,593 sections of lakes and streams assessed by the state, only 10 are in “full attainment, all uses,” the report says. Of the rest, 1,218 are known to be “impaired” in some way.

Under federal Clean Water Act requirements, once a waterway is identified as “impaired,” the state must act to improve it. That usually includes developing a restoration plan, taking impact on water quality into account when issuing permits, and controlling runoff.

Local waterways

Data on human health, drinking water and recreational uses was collected for many Ohio waterways in 2020 and 2021, but no new test results were available on aquatic life since the last report and the most recent data available for local rivers is still years old.

According to the Ohio EPA report:

  • The section of the Great Miami River from where Tawawa Creek flows into it in Sidney to where the Mad River joins it in Dayton, a distance of about 40 miles, is considered “not impaired,” according to data from 2019.
  • The rest of the Great Miami’s length, from Dayton to its mouth on the Ohio River, is impaired with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs, toxic and long-lasting manmade industrial chemicals), according to data collected in 2015 and 2019.
  • The Mad River, from Donnels Creek near Enon to its mouth on the Great Miami, about 20 miles, is impaired with PCBs, according to 2016 data, the most recent available.
  • The Little Miami River is considered impaired with PCBs from where it’s joined by Caesar Creek near Waynesville to its mouth on the Ohio, a distance of roughly 40 miles. But that’s based on data from 2007, the most recent available.
  • The Stillwater River from where Greenville Creek enters it at Covington to where it flows into the Great Miami at Dayton, a distance of about 30 miles, is not considered impaired according to 2019 data.

It is good news that one section of the Little Miami is being “delisted,” meaning it’s now meeting another set of cleanliness goals, Bucher said

“That is progress. That’s what we want to see, getting those waterways no longer listed as impaired,” he said.

Meeting federal standards

According to James Lee, media relations manager for Ohio EPA, the Great and Little Miami, Mad and Stillwater rivers all appear to be meeting federal standards for aquatic life.

Recent data from the Great Miami shows steady improvement, but a final report on that won’t be released for another year, he said. Lee provided pictures of a blue sucker and a shortnose gar, collected and released from the Great Miami during testing.

“Blue suckers are sensitive to pollution and their presence is indicative of a healthy stream,” he said.

The Little Miami also shows improvement, Lee said.

“Exceptional warmwater habitats that we observed a decade ago are still present today,” he said.

Recent sampling shows the Mad and Stillwater rivers are also meeting standards as warmwater aquatic life habitats, Lee said.

Pollution sources

The main factors hurting aquatic life are loss of habitat, excess nutrients (which contribute to algae and bacteria growth), and sediment from erosion.

The state’s major sources of water pollution are crop and livestock farming, land development, factory discharge and drainage from mines, the report says.

The biggest source of chemicals that impact the state’s drinking water is runoff from farmland, such as fertilizer and pesticides.

Failing septic systems, lack of sewers in some areas, and discharge from wastewater treatment plants also put nitrates — chemicals including some combination of nitrogen and oxygen — into the water, the report said.

Fishing, recreation

PCB contamination in fish causes most of the human health problems stemming from Ohio waterways, with mercury contamination as the second leading cause, the report said.

Analysis of suitability for recreational use is based on levels of bacteria and algae. Bacteria at beaches along Lake Erie varies widely.

“Generally, beaches located near population centers have the most problems. Results are also reported for streams and inland lakes,” the report said.

Lake Erie’s western basin shoreline, islands shoreline and open water in the western basin are all have high algae levels, but the Sandusky and central basin areas are in better shape, according to the report. There still isn’t enough information to determine if the Sandusky shoreline is clean enough for recreational use.

Ohio still has a “heavy need” to reduce phosphorous pollution that leads to algal blooms; to work on sewers to prevent e. coli contamination; and to stabilize stream banks to prevent erosion of sediment, Bucher said.

“These are slow processes, so they’re really tied to funding and people power to get things done,” he said.

State funding for local projects

Availability of resources for cleanup and prevention work is always the key variable for improving water quality, Bucher said.

Ohio has “really leaned into” cost-sharing projects with farmers, and with localities to stop leaking septic systems, he said.

The H2Ohio program, started under Gov. Mike DeWine, has allocated $342 million for clean-water work since 2019, Bucher said. That represents a notable uptick in state support.

“Prior to this it was mostly reliant on federal funding,” he said.

On Tuesday, DeWine announced $3 million of H2Ohio grants for nine wetland projects in nine counties, including:

  • In Butler County, $488,938 to MetroParks of Butler County for stream bank stabilization on Dry Fork in Governor Bebb MetroPark
  • In Clark County, $198,037 to Tecumseh Land Trust for wetland and floodplain restoration at Rainbow Run Wetlands
  • In Montgomery County, $309,720 to the Centerville-Washington Park District for wetland creation and stream bank restoration on Holes Creek

In a previous round of grants, $4.3 million went to 10 projects, according to a state news release. Both rounds of grant funding went to work on the Ohio River and its tributaries.

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