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SANDUSKY, OH – Sandusky Bay Watershed NOT Meeting Water Quality Standards

June 21, 2010

Excess Nutrients, Sedimentation Leading Causes of Impairments in Sandusky Bay Tributaries

Farmland being disked for planting in May. This particular farm is growing food crops without broadcasting nutrients onto the field, and their riparian zone can control sedimentary runoff. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

An Ohio EPA study of Sandusky Bay tributary streams revealed water quality impairments caused by excessive nutrients and sedimentation, problems that are common to most Ohio watersheds due to farmland erosion, deforestation and poor watershed management.

Recently, at a Great Lakes Commission Meeting, the Ohio Department of Health said there’s not enough sufficient data to determine when and where beaches are safe to swim in during a release of excessive nutrients. “We rely on residents to alert us,” said the ODH when asked by watershed action groups as to how they are dealing with the problem. This did not sit well with Sandy Bihn of the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association, who stressed her point by citing the never before seen sources of algae occurring in Grand Lake St. Mary’s.

Nutrients are the nitrates and phosphorus in a stream which can lead to algae growth and low oxygen levels. In the study area, high nutrient loads to streams are primarily caused by agricultural activities including manure and fertilizer runoff from fields. Runoff becomes more nutrient rich due to non-existent riparian zones and deforestation. Failing home septic systems and unsewered communities are another common source of nutrients. However (unlike the report in the EPA press release) a primary cause of nutrient overloads comes from urban, suburban, and peri-urban ‘cosmetic use’ applications in lawns and commercial green spaces. The term ‘cosmetic use’ is commonly associated to the everyday use of available retail lawn-care solutions. (In some cases, as in parts of Michigan and Ontario, cosmetic use solutions for lawn-care are banned.)

While the Ohio EPA is looking to this study as a way to control nutrients in Lake Erie, it stated – as of last week – to be

Pipe Creek from Cleveland Road. photo: Jenna Martin

on hold until results come in from a Florida plan outlining nutrient standards. Weight of Evidence and Independent Applicability are two separate approaches used to deal with “how nutrient standards are developed and there level of impairment,” according to the OHEPA; and the Florida study will help to determine the approach taken locally.

The study area encompassed Sandusky, Erie and Seneca counties. Sandusky County is the region where the ODH has identified a high rate of childhood cancer.  The study’s results do not indicate any water quality problems associated with known causes of cancer. Although, this study did not test for chemicals and/or industrial pollutants that might of resulted from current or past operations along the tributaries (read Bechtel Mclaughlin Article for more info on Pipe Creek toxins). Streams in the study included Green Creek, Pickerel Creek, Raccoon Creek, Beaver Creek, Mills Creek, South Creek, Muskellunge Creek and Pipe Creek and a segment of the Sandusky River from Fremont to Sandusky Bay.

People wading Mills Creek to net bait fish on West Perkins Avenue. Mills Creek is cited in the study to be at risk for its biological integrity. This would not be considered safe recreation according to the study. photo: Jenna Martin

Two-thirds of Sandusky Bay tributary streams surveyed in 2009 are not meeting Ohio water quality standards. Specific areas identified in the report as negatively influencing water quality include nutrient enrichment in Mills Creek and South Creek due to livestock access to the streams. Buck Creek is impaired by siltation from crop production combined with a legacy of pesticide usage.

Figure 15 in the study. The poor habitat quality of Pipe Creek RM 2.32 due to siltation, poor channel development and lack of adequate instream cover from channelization activities.

Other specific impairments were nutrient and organic enrichment from failing home septic systems and unsewered areas near Bark Creek. Upgrades at the Bellevue and Clyde wastewater treatment plants in the past five years have lead to improved water quality in Mills Creek and Raccoon Creek, respectively. Clyde has one combined sewer overflow and both facilities need to further reduce nutrient discharges.

Even with continued upgrades at the Wastewater Treatment plants the study comments for Mills Creek:

Total phosphorus continues to exceed expectations and the macroinvertebrate community has signatures of nutrient enrichment. Sources are likely the Bellevue WWTP and upstream livestock operations Total phosphorus continues to exceed expectations and the macroinvertebrate community has signatures of nutrient enrichment. Sources are likely the Bellevue WWTP and upstream livestock operations Total phosphorus continues to exceed expectations and the macroinvertebrate community has signatures of nutrient enrichment. Sources are likely theBellevue WWTP and upstream livestock operations.”

Ohio is required by the federal Clean Water Act to identify waters that do not meet water quality standards and develop plans to bring the affected waters into compliance. Much of this is done through the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program, which determines the maximum amount of pollutants a water body can receive on a daily basis without violating water quality standards.

The water quality study is the first step in the TMDL process. The TMDL process can lead to water quality improvement by evaluating pollution sources and developing strategies to address them. The TMDL program is community based, with residents, watershed groups and local governments determining what solutions will work best locally to achieve improvements.

Ohio EPA says it is committed to working with wastewater treatment operators to continue improvements in the quality of discharges. Potential local actions not regulated by Ohio EPA that will improve water quality could include: creating riparian buffers between farm fields and streams; fencing livestock out of streams; and replacing or repairing failing septic systems.

One method currently being supported by the OSU statewide branches to prevent nutrient overloads is the construction of “two-ditch” systems. (Check back for the EPA’s input on how they plan to deal with the failing tributaries in the Sandusky Bay.)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 30, 2010 10:00 pm

    As we watch Sandusky Bay and Western Lake Erie get greener and greener, many of us fear that Lake Erie may once again be at a tipping point. The summer of 2010 is starting out as one that will support more algae than in 2009. There has been more rain and wind and it is warmer than in 2009 The algal blooms are being seen one month earlier this year.

    We need to put an all out effort to reduce nutrients entering the lake – ban phosphorous from lawn fertilizer – take it out of dishwasher detergent, halt manure spreading from factory farms and require farmers to do soil tests before adding more phosphorus.

    Water is our economic future. We have more water than most places in the world. Shame on us if we let the water qulaity continue to deteriorate.

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