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Just how clean is the Great Miami River?

The Great Miami River continues to surprise scientists with its ability to rebound from pollution of the 20th century, and some that continues today.

“At one point, our waste just got flushed into the river,” says Sarah Hippensteel Hall, one of those scientists and a leader with the Miami Conservancy District, which built flood protection along the river in the early 1900s and has been working to clean the river.

MORE: Cleaner Great Miami River gets love from cities along its shorelines

Fortunately, she says, “in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we began to build regional wastewater treatment plant plants, so when you flushed your toilet, it went to a treatment system before it went straight to the river. That began us on the journey of a better river.”

Increased diversity of wildlife, including reappearance of bald eagles, is one sign the Great Miami River’s water quality is improving. This bald eagle took flight along the river near the Ohio 122 bridge in Middletown during early February. (NICK GRAHAM/STAFF)

Then, national legislation focused on pollution by industries and others. Earth Day (April 22), which first was held in 1970, has helped build support for cleaning of waterways, the air and the land.

“Often times we see clean water as an issue for developing countries,” says Matt Trokan, conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Ohio Chapter. “But because of all the industry that we have here, we have a lot more pollution, and a lot more challenges, in providing clean water to people.”

“Earth Day was triggered by the Cuyahoga River (in Cleveland) catching on fire (in 1969), and celebrates the passage of the Clean Water Act (in 1972) and Clean Air Act (first approved in 1963, but amended in 1970 and 1990),” Trokan said. “I think without those, our air- and water quality would have been a whole lot worse.”

“Some other nations that don’t have those safeguards in place, they’ve really lost a lot of their environment, and it affects their environmental health as well,” Trokan said.

Official: Dam on Great Miami River needs to go

One example how the river and its watersheds have improved is the animals living in and around them, Hippensteel Hall says.

“When the scientists go every 10-15 years, every time they go, they’re amazed how the diversity is growing. And you think about the eagles,” she added. “All of a sudden, there are eagles in downtown Dayton, there are eagles in Miamisburg. There are eagles down in the Hamilton area. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have good habitat, healthy food service and all of that. That’s something people can see. They don’t get that into fish and bugs like some of us do.”

The river’s condition “is not perfect,” Hippensteel Hall said. “But, we’re in much better shape than most places.”

MORE: How the Great Flood of 1913 changed life in Butler County 

The river has “legacy pollution” problems, led by widespread existence of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenls) and mercury, with some waterways still containing the insecticide DDT.

Quality Measurements

Here’s how the river has improved through the years for aquatic life: In 1997, after an extensive biological and water-quality check of the “Middle and Lower Great Miami River” from upstream of Dayton, the Ohio Enviromental Protection Agency found of 90 miles checked, 55.3 percent (about 50 miles) were in “full attainment” for aquatic life, with 40.3 percent (about 36 miles) in partial attainment, and 4.4 percent (about 4 miles) in “non-attainment.”

By comparison, the OEPA in 2010 did another check, this time of 75 miles, and found 60.6 miles in full attainment, and 14.4 miles in partial attainment. Of the 14.4 miles in partial attainment, the main reason was nutrient over-enrichment, mainly because of fertilizing of agricultural lands, with the fertilizers seeping into waterways. Over-fertilizing of residential and business properties also is a problem.

Water flows over the low level dam on the Great Miami River at Combs Park in Hamilton. (NICK GRAHAM/STAFF)

Existence of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, is very high.

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The over-enrichment from agriculture — three times what is typical in other large rivers — prompted the Ohio EPA in a report to state: “Given the magnitude of over-enrichment in the lower (river), the usual pablum of reducing nutrient loading through voluntary agricultural best-management practices is rendered quaint.”

Significant changes are needed in agricultural management, and low-level dams along the river without significant purposes should be removed, the report recommended.

State regulators recommended changing the ways farmlands are fertilized and drained; rebuilding floodplains so they absorb the nutrients better instead of them flowing downriver, removing low-level dams in the river that do not provide flood protection but do hold back pollutants, and putting tighter regulations on sewage plants and industrial polluters.

Of the land drained by the Great Miami watershed, 66 percent is agricultural, 15 percent is developed, and 19 percent is undeveloped.

The 170-mile-long Great Miami River watershed drains about 5,267 square miles of land, 3,942 in Ohio, and 1,425 in Indiana. The river’s headwaters in Northwest Ohio’s Harden County, and it collects water from some of Ohio’s most productive agricultural lands.

Problems Downstream

The excessive nutrients create “dead zones” of low-oxygen water that can kill fish and marine lift, like the area in the Gulf of Mexico that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year determined was its biggest ever, about the size of New Jersey. Here’s a link to that report.

The nutrients can create dead zones locally, Hippensteel Hall said. “Every time there’s a little dam – for example, Hamilton has the recreation dam (south of downtown) — if the conditions are right, you can see those things happen in the river, and we do.”

Scientists test for toxic algae blooms, which also can be caused by high nutrient levels, on the Great Miami River, but haven’t found any. But, “In 215, 650 miles of the Ohio River went toxic, with algae that was toxic,” Hippensteel Hall said.

The conservancy district has been working more than a dozen years with the region’s farmers to help solve nutrient problems, with more than 460 projects that will prevent 626 tons of nutrients flowing into streams and rivers.

“We just finished a model of the entire watershed, working with 15 of our wastewater treatment plants, to understand how nutrients cycle in our watershed,” Hippensteel Hall said, “and we strongly believe we know more about nutrients in our watershed than any other watershed in the country.”

“I want to be very clear: Our farmers have wanted to do something to make it better. They have been at the table from the beginning, over 12 years,” she said.

Meanwhile, trash that flows down rivers creates other problems for ocean creatures. Scientists in Spain during February discovered 64 pounds of plastic garbage inside a young sperm whale, and believe the trash killed it.

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