The Fragile, Resilient Scioto River
A white egret stands in the shallows of the Scioto River north of the Greenlawn boat ramp on an overcast afternoon in late May. Chris Yoder and John Datillo putter by at a distance in an 18-foot johnboat. They’re all in search of fish. The bird may find lunch first, but the researchers are looking for more than a meal. Two metal booms protrude from the bow of their electrofishing vessel, and each one holds six metal cables, dangling like a pair of mechanical jellyfish. When the cables dip into the water and the electricity is running, the current causes involuntary muscle spasms in the fish, drawing them in and rendering them temporarily paralyzed.
The system is off as Yoder throttles the boat upstream, heading north toward Downtown. He’s looking for proof of life, or rather, for its abundance. He’s the research director at the Midwest Biodiversity Institute, a scientific research and educational nonprofit in Hilliard. Datillo, an MBI research associate, sits on the bow. Yoder began electrofishing the Scioto 40 years ago as a staffer for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency—capturing, identifying, measuring and recording fish samples to monitor and assess the health of the river.
His career has spanned the large-scale eradication of much of the pollution that once choked the nation’s waterways. He has witnessed diverse species of fish return to stretches of the Scioto where they were once scarce or nonexistent. He attributes the restoration largely to the Clean Water Act and the massive capital improvement plan it put in motion, Project 88, which modernized Columbus’ wastewater treatment plants. He’s become a public champion for the project, which to him serves as a prime example of cooperation among many branches of government and the private sector to address a critical environmental concern. It was a turning point.
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But his desire to promote the project’s accomplishments is also rooted in worry. He fears if people don’t understand what was gained—as well as why and how—it could be lost again. Among the hazards facing the Scioto today: nutrient pollution, sewer overflows, urban sprawl, climate change and a deregulatory approach to government that flies in the face of its recovery. “Identifying potential threats is very easy,” Yoder says with a dry chuckle, “because there’s so many of them.”
The Scioto has been polluted for well over a century. In 1903, Marshall Leighton of the U.S. Geological Survey wrote a report on normal and polluted waters in the region, and he marveled at the river’s remarkable ability to purify itself. But Leighton also noted the appalling extent of its degradation, writing that contamination from raw sewage couldn’t be overcome and that “the river is little more than a dumping ground for refuse.”
For many years, the extent of pollution control for most cities was to run sewer lines as far away as possible. The downstream segment of the Scioto south of Columbus was intensely contaminated, especially when water quality worsened during periods of heat and drought, and only pollution-resistant species like bullhead and carp remained. Yoder says the dissolved oxygen—the air that aquatic life breathes—dropped to zero in some places between Columbus and Portsmouth.
In Columbus, the first wastewater treatment plant, the Improved Sewage Works, began operating in 1908 near Jackson Pike, a few miles south of the city. A new facility was completed in 1937, now called the Jackson Pike Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the Southerly Wastewater Treatment Plant came online in 1967. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, spurred in part by the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, which had burned at least once a decade for a century. The CWA, under the administration of the 2-year-old U.S. EPA, sought to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of national waterways, and to make them fishable and swimmable. The goal was to improve water quality by placing limits on the point-source pollution created by industrial factories and municipal wastewater treatment facilities, which discharge directly into rivers and streams.
The CWA didn’t magically cure the country’s ills. Yoder says the technology of the time struggled to achieve the act’s enhanced water quality standards while meeting the demands of an increasingly urbanized population. Compliance was lagging and inconsistent until 1984, when the U.S. EPA drew a line in the sand: All municipalities had to meet the CWA’s standards by July 1, 1988. Federal construction grants were awarded to help offset costs, and cities began working to revamp facilities.
In Columbus, Project 88 was born. The goal was to add capacity and upgrade the treatment process, which would allow the city to meet CWA standards. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on June 25, 1986, for what became the city’s most expensive and ambitious construction project to that point, with a budget of $208 million.
Jim Joyce came on board as an assistant project manager after work was underway. He remembers an army of people contributing at the height of construction—The Columbus Dispatch reported it required 1,000 workers, and the daily flow of supplies and contractors to Southerly was so heavy that the city added a traffic light at the construction entrance.
Joyce, who is now retired, says city employees and EPA officials had many discussions early on about exactly what a “fishable, swimmable” river meant, and how engineers could achieve it. He also recalls strong local support, in particular from Mayor Buck Rinehart and Columbus City Council, and no real resistance. “It’s kind of [like] opposing mom and apple pie,” he says with a laugh. “ ‘Clean the river up and make it fishable, swimmable’—it’s kind of hard to argue [against] that.”
Ultimately, Project 88 was completed slightly ahead of schedule and under budget. The water flowing from the treatment plants to the Scioto began meeting CWA standards at least a few weeks before the deadline. It was, by all accounts, an enormous success.
Darin Wise pulls a cupful of partially treated wastewater, called mixed liquor, from an aeration tank that churns like an artificial river. The Southerly plant manager points to bacterial filament swirling in the ladle of frothy, brown water and explains how bacteria convert ammonia to nitrite and reduce organic waste compounds. The wastewater treatment process often mimics the natural cleansing action of a stream, and these bacteria are the same as the ones found in the Scioto River, just more concentrated.
Wise and John Newsome, the administrator of the Columbus Division of Sewerage and Drainage, are showing off the plant and the upgrades installed during Project 88. Southerly received a majority of the additions, including six gigantic final clarifiers, where the mixed liquor goes after the aeration tanks to allow any remaining suspended solids to settle out, a new step in the process at the time. Engineers also added an interconnector pipe to divert flow from the landlocked Jackson Pike facility to Southerly.
Today, Southerly sits on 225 acres along the Scioto about 11 miles south of Columbus. In the first four months of 2019, it treated an average of 155 million gallons a day, a number that has been rising in recent years, and it maxes out at 330 million gallons. It serves 1.2 million people from 26 communities. If someone in New Albany takes a shower, the water arrives at Southerly in one or two days. It spends 24 hours moving through the treatment process before it’s pumped to the Scioto, where the water from the two plants sometimes constitutes almost the entire river during seasonal low-flow periods.
The quality is tested inside the plant and in the river to make sure Southerly is meeting CWA permit requirements. Workers monitor for a wide range of pollutants and other substances, but ammonia, suspended solids and a measurement known as biochemical oxygen demand, or BOD, are the main areas of concern. The results are reported monthly to the Ohio EPA, and Wise says Southerly far exceeds requirements most of the time.
Wise calls Project 88 a big leap forward in meeting water quality standards, but he and Newsome also note the constant expansion and technological advances made at the two plants since then. Hardly a year has gone by when there hasn’t been some major construction project. From 2005 to 2011, the capacity of each plant increased 50 percent, to the tune of $322 million. Their point: Project 88 was not a capstone but rather a new starting point.
“It’s a work in progress,” Wise says. “You’re never done.”
In the late 1970s, Ohio created a tiered system for classifying bodies of water, with escalating pollution-control standards to protect the aquatic life each one could likely support. The Ohio EPA didn’t think the tainted Scioto could achieve the baseline level of a warm-water habitat, so it was designated a limited warm-water habitat with less stringent protections, Yoder says. The U.S. EPA rejected that classification for all bodies of water, forcing Ohio and Columbus to meet the elevated standards. “Because of that, the improvements through Project 88 had to happen at a higher level,” says Amy Brennan, the state’s director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit.
“It takes an emphasis from [the] EPA to get these municipalities to invest in their infrastructure to improve the water quality,” Wise says. “It can get political. You don’t win a popularity contest by raising rates.” In Project 88’s case, federal grants paid for about $40 million of the Southerly upgrades, while the bulk of the money came from increased sewer fees, according to Dispatch reports in 1988.
Despite the early doubts, the Scioto met the higher warm-water habitat standards below Jackson Pike by 1991, according to a chapter co-authored by Yoder in the forthcoming book “From Catastrophe to Recovery: Stories of Fishery Management Success.”
Yoder took a job with the Ohio EPA in 1976, and in 1979 he began electrofishing a 40-mile segment of the Scioto that runs from Griggs Dam to the confluence with Deer Creek, a dozen miles south of Circleville. The goal was to gather species samples for the agency’s Water Quality Management Plan, and to the best of his knowledge, it was the first time the electrofishing method had been used systematically in Ohio. Over the next 37 years, he and his colleagues with the EPA and MBI completed 28 surveys of that stretch. The story of the Scioto’s restoration is borne out in their data.
In 1979, there were 51 species found by electrofishing. By 2011, the number of species had risen to 87, according to the Ohio EPA, which attributes the increase to Project 88 and the adoption of best management practices in the agricultural industry. The biological recovery emanated from the tributaries to the south, Yoder says, and the fish now use the Scioto like a highway to return to locations where pollution used to be too great—in some cases to tributaries where they’ve been absent for more than a century. The Ohio EPA is now considering a proposal to re-designate a stretch of the Scioto—from the confluence with Big Darby Creek, north of Circleville, to the confluence with Salt Creek, south of Chillicothe—as an exceptional warm-water habitat, the highest level it could achieve.
Datillo and Yoder’s johnboat continues upstream, gliding through Downtown. It’s a much different river today than the one Yoder first explored. The restoration of a more natural channel, completed as part of the Scioto Mile project, has improved the river’s ability to clean itself, he says. Low-head dam removal has helped increase the diversity of aquatic life because species aren’t hemmed in, though the Greenlawn Dam is still an obstacle for many types of fish.
Yoder finds a suitable spot for electrofishing about a quarter-mile from the Olentangy River confluence. Datillo lowers the dangling cables into the water. “Do you want me to net everything?” he asks. Just the interesting stuff, Yoder replies. The electrofishing engine is deafening, and the air is hot with exhaust. The cables send pulses of direct current into the stream, and the fish come under the electric spell, convulsing toward the boat and popping to the surface, stunned. Datillo, standing on the bow platform, plunges his pole downward and nets a big fish, dropping it into the boat’s holding tank. He deposits the ones he wants and tosses the others aside. Yoder cuts the engine after a few minutes.
If this was part of a full survey, they would examine the exterior of each fish for signs of disease and then log its size and weight. They look for abundance, diversity of species and diversity of diet, among other factors, to assess the water’s health. There would be 25 to 30 sites along the river and its tributaries, and they’d test each site twice a year during summer and fall. The last survey was self-funded by MBI in 2015, when the river showed signs of attaining exceptional warm-water status.
The Scioto’s restoration has been a triumph, but the danger of a success story is the illusion of an endpoint. Nothing in nature is static, certainly not a river. The harmful effects of ammonia, suspended solids and BOD have largely been addressed, but they’re hardly the only concerns.
Nutrient pollution has been a problem for decades, but it has been thrust to the forefront in recent years by the resulting algae blooms throughout Ohio, threatening drinking water. Agricultural runoff often causes excess nitrogen and phosphorous to flow to waterways, and they also accumulate at treatment plants through stormwater and wastewater systems. Nutrients can be removed at treatment plants, Wise says, but it’s expensive, and they still have to find an ultimate use for them.
“And who bears the burden of that cost? It’s going to be the residents,” says Kristy Meyer, the vice president of policy with the Ohio Environmental Council, an ecological advocacy organization.
The price of dealing with pollution remains steep. Eclipsing Project 88, the city’s most expensive capital improvement project is now the $371 million OARS tunnel, completed in 2017. It provides 60 million gallons of storage for overflows from the old combined sewer system, which carries both stormwater and sanitary sewage that would otherwise run untreated to the Scioto when the system floods.
The volume from Columbus’ largest overflow sites was 198 million gallons higher in 2018 than in 2011, though the two plants also treated 6 billion more gallons of wastewater in 2018. A new chemically enhanced primary treatment system at Southerly, scheduled to begin operation this fall, will provide an additional 110 million gallons of capacity when the plant’s biological system reaches its limit during heavy rains. The city also has rolled out Blueprint Columbus, a plan to address sanitary sewer overflows by installing sump pumps, repairing pipes, directing roof runoff to storm sewers and installing green infrastructure like rain gardens.
The Midwest has experienced a 10 to 20 percent increase in severe storms, Brennan says. Those rains fuel sewer overflows and nonpoint-source pollution, like runoff of nutrients, pesticides and herbicides. Climate change is the likely culprit. In 2015, the city of Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and other organizations created “Sustaining Scioto,” a study into how Central Ohio should protect the Upper Scioto watershed from climate change. Rachael Beeman, an associate planner with MORPC, highlights the most important initiatives: emphasizing public education on water quality, encouraging agricultural practices that reduce runoff and investing in resilient infrastructure, such as more capital improvements at the treatment plants. She also says the study’s data indicates extreme weather patterns will persist in the future, with more intense storms and droughts.
On one hand, Yoder thinks the Scioto’s recovery may not have reached its zenith. Yet he also wonders if the biological gains from the CWA’s point-source pollution regulations have largely been realized. Though the Scioto’s measurements have improved, the statewide data shows slippage. In 2018, the Ohio EPA reported that 87.5 percent of the river-miles assessed met water quality standards for aquatic life, a vast improvement over the 21 percent attainment in 1980. Since 2010, however, there has been a decline of 5.6 percent.
Yoder is also uneasy with the government’s hard shift toward deregulation. “There’s always the minimalists and maximalists when it comes to water quality policy,” he says, “and my concern is, we’re in a climate where there’s a lot more minimalists than maximalists who are in power to make those decisions and set rules and make legislation.”
Last year, U.S. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced a proposal to roll back the Clean Water Rule, created by President Obama’s administration to solidify CWA protections for small streams, tributaries and watersheds, which are susceptible to nonpoint-source pollution and urban sprawl. The rule is still law in Ohio for now, and though it won’t affect protection of the Scioto, its repeal could degrade or eliminate waters that help guard the river from pollution and encroaching floods, says Meyers, who compares the waterways to the human circulatory system.
“Obviously, the [Scioto’s] water quality would start to slip backwards, too, and then we would see the biology—the biological indicators—start to slip as well,” she continues. Yoder says that in the worst-case scenario, the repeal could erase 80 percent of stream-miles in Ohio from CWA jurisdiction.
Perhaps what troubles him most is a less rigorous and vigilant approach to in-stream monitoring within the Ohio EPA, in particular what he sees as substantial recent reductions in a statewide biological and water quality assessment program. In an emailed statement, an EPA spokesperson stressed the agency’s robust monitoring across many programs but would not directly answer whether there had been a cutback in 2018, saying instead that it varies year to year.
Data is essential to Yoder, and a common refrain emerges in interviews with others: I get my information from Chris. He’s uniquely positioned to provide it. Decades ago, he and his colleagues at the Ohio EPA designed the monitoring programs to be robust, he says, and to serve as a true measure of the CWA’s effectiveness. They anticipated doubts about the benefits of regulation and imposing costs on municipalities and industry. They wanted to document the yearly changes on that 40-mile stretch of the Scioto so that the data could speak to the success of undertakings like Project 88. They seemed to know a time would come when they’d have to justify everything that had been accomplished.
By late May, the golden redhorse has returned to rivers like the Scioto from the smaller streams where it goes to spawn. It’s a bottom-feeding suckerfish, a carnivore, and its mouth looks like a donkey’s snout. It typically measures 12 to 18 inches long, though it can grow upwards of 26. The one in Yoder’s hands appears to be average in length. Next to him, Datillo holds up another. The most noteworthy fact about these fish: Unlike bullhead or carp, they’re highly intolerant of pollution.
The johnboat drifts near the banks while Datillo and Yoder analyze the rest of their haul. The big catch Datillo netted turns out to be a 27-inch flathead catfish. It would have been a great specimen years ago, Yoder says, but now it’s nothing special. They can grow up to 4 feet these days—with water quality improved, the species that live longer are getting bigger. Datillo also caught a white crappie, a river carpsucker, a quillback, two smallmouth bass, a northern hogsucker and a shiner minnow. The hogsucker is intolerant of pollution, too, and along with the golden redhorse and two other related fish, it showed the strongest increases in population during Yoder’s 37-year study.
The fish are all tossed into the river, where they’ll spring back from their temporary paralysis within minutes, if they haven’t already. Yoder points the boat south, back downstream. He brings up a recent paper by economists David Keiser and Joseph Shapiro, which analyzes the costs and benefits of the CWA and also points out that many waterways across the country don’t meet pollution standards. The costs are straightforward, and they reach into the trillions nationwide—and into the billions locally. But Yoder argues the economists greatly underestimated the benefits, which are much harder to quantify. He believes the costs are worth it, but he fears that given the political tenor, legislators could point to the study and use it to justify slashing regulations.
He plans to respond with more data. Through MBI, where he’s worked since 2001, he’s applying for a research and development grant from the Ohio Water Development Authority to analyze CWA permits for wastewater treatment plants to determine which parts of compliance were most critical. He also wants to tease out the value of the monitoring design he helped create, to calculate the benefits of the long-term surveys of aquatic life. He hopes it will serve as a counterweight to the focus on cost.
“I feel like if we don’t do it now, we won’t get an opportunity to do it right,” he says.
The boat swings around an eastward bend toward the dock at Greenlawn. Yoder is excited to get back on the water for another full survey now that the southern segment may be designated an exceptional warm-water habitat. He’s hoping to do it in 2020, though he’s still working on how to finance it.
Will there be more golden redhorses then? Will the catfish be longer still? Or will the Scioto’s biological indicators slip backward? What worries him more than relapse is that there may come a day when no one completes such rigorous studies of the fish, when problems are allowed to slide downstream unnoticed for another generation to fix. Someone should bear witness. The river demands it.
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