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Water pollution we all create— Catching up with runaway runoff

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This is the fifth in a series of articles examining issues regarding local water.
• Click here to view all the articles the series

There is a gully in the Glen at the northeast edge of the village, not far from the Glen Helen Building. When it rains, water comes rushing into the Glen, carrying with it the runoff from the village, its street oils, its lawn chemicals, and its trash.

“It all comes into the Glen and the Yellow Springs Creek almost instantly through pipes that empty at points all along the west side of the Glen,” Glen Helen Ecology Institute Director Nick Boutis said. When land is cleared for buildings and parking lots, rarely does one think of the effect on the watershed. When farms fertilize and debug crops and collect manure from livestock, the watershed is the last thing a farmer wants to have to worry about. When highways get built, the quality of the waterways in the area is last on the list of concerns. But all of these land use activities produce water runoff with contaminants that affect the health of the local watershed.

Around the state, the waterways are exibiting the effects. According to Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 watershed assessment, nearly 88 percent of Ohio’s rivers and streams are impaired for aquatic life, and 91 percent are impaired for recreational use. While point-source pollution from, for example, wastewater treatment plants, account for much of the country’s water pollution, in Ohio the biggest factor is non-point source pollution, which cannot be traced back to its source. And partly because it is the largest user of the land in this breadbasket state, agriculture has been found to be the leading cause of impairment to Ohio’s waterways.

Around Yellow Springs, particularly when compared to the rest of the state, the local waterways, such as the Little Miami River and its tributaries, are doing relatively well and have been given the OEPA’s highest quality rating of “exceptional” for aquatic life. According to Eric Partee, director of Little Miami, Inc., a group that works to protect riparian zones at the edges of the Little Miami, the main trunk of the Little Miami has come a long way over the past 40 years toward restored health. In the 1970s just 3 percent of the trunk met OEPA’s water quality “attainment” standards, and today about 97 percent of the main river has reached attainment.

“There’s a lot to celebrate — the Little Miami is a real success story,” he said this week.

And the other good news is that the Village drinking water, which comes from groundwater several miles south of town, as opposed to the surface water that includes rivers, appears to be well protected from runoff.

But what is “exceptional” water quality for rivers and streams? The 2010 state assessment indicates that the local tributaries and those upstream are impaired by higher than acceptable levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, formerly used in electric applications and toxic to fish and other organisms. And a study conducted last year by Wright State University and Antioch College students also found incidents of high levels of nitrates, chlorinates, and e. coli bacteria at a sampling site near the Village Water Reclamation and treatment plant consistent with the contaminants associated with human and animal waste. And neither WSU environmental chemist Audrey McGowin who helped conduct the stream study, nor Boutis would advise drinking the water that runs through the Glen and to the Little Miami River.

“By EPA standards, this area is listed as exceptional, which according to the state is as good as it gets,” Boutis said last week. “But my feeling is we have a long way to go…When I was growing up in upstate New York we drank straight from the stream we played in, but I wouldn’t do that now.”

Little Miami “exceptional”

Designated a State and National Scenic River, the upper Little Miami River is considered to be an exceptional warmwater habitat, according to the most recent comprehensive Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) analysis by the OEPA in 2002. The designation is an aquatic life indicator only and does not apply to either recreational uses or drinking water uses. It applies to the river that runs from South Charleston southwest past Yellow Springs and on to Beavercreek.

While some of the river is in full attainment for a sufficient diversity of fish and invertebrate populations, according to the TMDL report, two of the five sections of the Yellow Springs Creek and Jacoby branch that were tested achieved full attainment, two achieved partial attainment, and one did not achieve attainment of a “balanced integrated community of warmwater aquatic organisms.” For the local waterways, the main causes of impairment were nutrients, siltation, pathogens, pesticides and organic enrichment, mostly caused by the runoff from suburban development and agricultural land use.

In Southwest Ohio in general, high levels of silt and nutrients from erosion and agricultural fertilizers are the two dominant causes of fresh water impairment, according to Wittenberg University geology professor John Ritter, who recently joined the board of the Tecumseh Land Trust.

As top soil erodes, rains wash silt down to the rivers creating cloudy, less oxygenated water, disturbing plant growth and impeding fish from finding food. The same soil erosion draws off the phosphorus and nitrogen farmers apply for their crops and carries it to the rivers, which further reduces oxygen and suffocates the river’s natural ecosystem.

“The impairment is related to agriculture, but it’s not that [farmers] are not good stewards of the land, it’s just that they’re the ones using the land the most,” Ritter said. “Could we do better? Yes.”

While agriculture accounts for 78 percent of land use in the upper Little Miami region, land clearing for construction and development also encourages erosion and sedimentation by unsettling the soil and displacing it with impervious surfaces.

The OEPA is currently in the process of updating the 2002 TMDL study for the upper Little Miami, though results won’t be available until 2013, according to OEPA spokesperson Heather Lauer, who expects that while several new livestock operations have been added to the South Charleston area, recent upgrades to several local wastewater treatment plants could result in improvements in the local stream health.

A more recent study of the Glen’s streams by WSU and Antioch College students indicated that the Glen’s water is probably not safe to drink. According to the results, levels of chloride spiked above OEPA drinking water limits on two separate occasions last fall in the Yellow Springs Creek near the wastewater treatment plant. Nitrate levels were also found to be above drinking water limits on many occasions, and once in November, total coliform levels spiked to above 5,000 colony forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters, where the limit for drinking water is 1 CFU/100 ml.

While contaminant levels were below the limits the treatment plant is required to meet, the stream was accumulating bacteria and chemicals that could be caused by the wastewater plant and runoff from grazing animals waste, feedlots and lawn fertilizers and pesticides, according to Professor McGowin, who helped lead the study.

But stream water standards are different than drinking water standards, explained Lauer, who said a stream needs a certain level of bacteria to break down the leaves and waste from organisms living in it.

“A natural flowing stream has bacteria to break down dead organic material and a whole food chain including microinvertebrates, larger bugs and fish — it’s a rich, nutrient soup,” she said.

Tap buffered from runoff

While runoff poses a problem for recreation and healthy streams and plant life, it does not appear to adversely affect the local drinking water, which comes from deep underground and, unlike the surface water, has been filtered by the soils and sands it has traveled through.

The OEPA requires municipalities to test their drinking water for a comprehensive battery of substances from naturally occurring bacteria to volatile and synthetic organics, metals, radiologics and sanitary chemicals treatment plants add, such as chlorine and fluoride, according to OEPA spokesperson Lauer. The profile would account for the kinds of contaminants that runoff could produce, including those from industrial fertilizers and pesticides, as well as those from pavement and car fluids.

According to Village Water Superintendent Joe Bates, since he came to the village seven years ago, the Village has always been in compliance with the OEPA’s drinking water standards.

“We’ve got good water, it’s just high in manganese at times, which isn’t going to hurt you,” he said in a recent interview.

To get more information on how local runoff was affecting the local drinking water source, Bates and local environmental attorney Ellis Jacobs led a study of the local water source, which they presented to Village Council in 2010. The tests, funded by grant money, were conducted on eight separate occasions in the spring of that year on a list of 24 chemicals found in common fungicides and herbicides, including atrazine and simizine (which the OEPA already requires the plant to test for) and the degradates of those chemicals. The study also included testing for several different plasticizers found in hydraulic fluid and PVC plastic wrap and benzo(a)pyrene, a highly carcinogenic hydrocarbon found in coal tar and auto exhaust.

The data from samples taken at the water plant tap showed levels of all chemicals that were so low they were barely readable. The levels were below not only regulatory limits, but also below reporting and detection limits.

Questions occasionally arise about the impact on the drinking water from the waste pile under Gaunt Park pool that used to serve as the Village municipal dump. But because the dump was closed in the early 1950s, before the country began widespread use of plastic containers and lawn chemicals, local geologist Peter Townsend believes that contamination from the dump is highly unlikely. If there were toxins leaching out of Gaunt Park, the topography suggests that contaminants would likely have drained north to a creek behind Northwood Drive, and not toward the Village wellfield.

“If it closed in the 1950s, there’s probably not much in it that would be harmful,” Townsend said.

We could do better

While runoff doesn’t currently threaten the local drinking water, runoff continues to be a challenge for optimum stream health, according to Steve Hall of Greene County Soil and Water Conservation District. Hall’s job as a conservationist is to help encourage farmers to use best land management practices to reduce the silt and nutrient runoff from their farms.

Soil and Water conservationists are available to consult with land owners to establish a conservation plan for their properties, which could include the use of cover crops and no-till farming to prevent erosion; more precise nutrient management with soil testing to apply only the kind and amount of nutrients necessary; rotational grazing for livestock; and proper manure collection. Extension consultants also recommend that farmers use less harmful chemicals on their land, such as those made by Trupointe Cooperative, based in Eastern Ohio with an outlet in Cedarville.

In a business with such small profit margins, farmers would like to do everything they can to prevent “their money from getting washed down the river” too, Hall said.

While some choose not to adopt new practices, about 75 percent of farm operators do agree to some level of sustainable land management, which has made a difference in water quality in the region, Hall said.

Municipalities are required to meet their own runoff standards, and Greene County Regional Planning and Soil and Water also help regulate the unincorporated areas for runoff. In general, the rule of thumb is that the quantity of water leaving a new development site be no different than it was before the development, according to Planning Director Steve Anderson. Engineers from those offices encourage and mandate the use of detention and retention ponds, wetland areas and grass swales that retain the silt and deter fast moving stormwater.

Ultimately, development and growth is never going to cease, McGowin said, but it can be minimized and managed better.

“We’re not going to have fewer people, so we have to be smarter about where our waste goes,” she said. “The area people don’t focus enough on is conservation.”

“All streams are under threat these days. Yellow Springs Creek is like all other creeks — it is part of the environmental cycle of water called the hydrologic cycle that moves nutrients and pollutants around on Earth. The more something dissolves in water, the more it will move around,” McGowin said. “We all need to think about the products we buy and consume because we could potentially eat or drink any of those chemicals someday. We are all downstream from someone.”

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