By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Mill Creek Park’s water-
quality problems are multifaceted watershed issues that transcend political jurisdictions and regulatory boundaries, according to an environmental specialist at the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.
“Streams and their smaller tributaries do not follow political boundaries,” said Stephanie Dyer, environmental program manager at Eastgate, which is the water-quality management agency for Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Reducing pollution across the 78-square-mile Mill Creek watershed is a responsibility of governments and individual landowners, Dyer added.
“It’s every stakeholder within that watershed’s responsibility to do their part” to reduce water pollution, she said. “It’s going to take a lot of cooperation among all the stakeholders” to clean up Mill Creek.
Dyer contacted The Vindicator, urging that the pollution of Mill Creek be viewed in a broader context than just Youngstown’s combined storm and sanitary sewer overflows, or CSOs, which the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said were the primary cause of the massive fish kill in Mill Creek Park’s Lake Newport after a heavy rain in late June.
Subsequently, high E. coli bacteria levels measured in water samples from that lake led Mill Creek MetroParks officials July 10 to close lakes Newport, Cohasset and Glacier indefinitely to all recreational use.
Originating in Fairfield Township, Columbiana County, the creek flows 23 miles before running into the Mahoning River in Youngstown.
It passes through the city of Columbiana, then through the Mahoning County communities of Beaver and Boardman townships and Youngstown.
The creek’s watershed also includes parts of Green, Canfield and Austintown townships and Canfield city.
defined by topography
Defined by topography and not by political jurisdiction boundaries, a watershed is an area of land over which water flows downhill to a body of water.
The watershed’s environmental challenges also transcend regulatory boundaries because different agencies regulate different pollution sources, from which contaminants are washed into Mill Creek and its tributaries by stormwater runoff, Dyer explained.
For example, residential and commercial septic systems are regulated by county health boards, while public sewers, sewage treatment plants and industrial discharges are regulated by the Ohio EPA.
Agricultural runoff is under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, while control of stormwater runoff from commercial and residential developments comes under county, city, village and township rules and the Ohio EPA’s jurisdiction.
Public education on contamination sources and their management is needed to reduce water pollution, said Patricia Sweeney, Mahoning County health commissioner.
“The CSOs are one example of point-source pollution. It’s costly, but, it’s doable to fix that, but then there’s the whole problem with the nonpoint-source pollution related to agricultural runoff and related to the development in the area,” said Dr. Ray Beiersdorfer, a Youngstown State University geology professor.
“We do need to tackle the CSO problem, but then it would be also good to better regulate and prevent this nonpoint-source runoff into the creeks,” he added.
Point sources of pollution have readily identifiable locations; nonpoint sources do not, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“When you talk about a watershed, you’re talking about nearly 80 square miles,” Aaron Young, Mill Creek MetroParks executive director, said, referring to the Mill Creek watershed.
“All of us can contribute to that in a positive or negative manner. I think education’s needed,” Young said.
Local government officials need to inform residents concerning what they can do “to help improve the watershed and the water quality that we’re ultimately responsible for,” Young said.
To discuss the complex issues pertaining to Mahoning Valley water quality, a local watershed awareness group will conduct a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Boardman Township Government Center, 8299 Market St.
That group is AWARE, an acronym for Alliance for Watershed Action and Resource Education.
Founded in 1999, AWARE consists of county, state and federal agencies and private citizens, whose goal is to improve the Mahoning Valley’s water quality.
Dyer’s emphasis on a broad, watershedwide view of Mill Creek’s environmental problems is shared by the Ohio EPA, whose spokeswoman, Linda Fee Oros, supplied The Vindicator with 2013 Mill Creek water-test results, which showed some of the highest E. coli counts occurring in Columbiana, near the creek’s headwaters.
Those counts, which reached 10,000 in one sample, may be caused by agricultural runoff or by runoff from failing septic systems into the creek and its tributaries, Dyer said.
The Ohio EPA says a count of 576 is the potential health hazard threshold.
E. coli are found in the feces of humans and other mammals.
“The highest bacterial counts are outside of the park. We need to start looking beyond just the park’s boundaries,” for water pollution sources that need to be controlled, Dyer said.
Oros also said the prevalence of pollution-tolerant carp in the fish kill was an indicator of a distressed watershed.
Young observed that E. coli readings tend to increase after rainwater runoff transports pollutants, such as waste from failing septic systems, lawn and farm fertilizers and city sewer overflows into Mill Creek and the lakes along it.
In 2007, the Ohio EPA endorsed the Mill Creek Watershed Action Plan developed by AWARE.
Since then, Dyer said progress has been achieved toward the plan’s goals through septic-system maintenance education programs, establishment of rules specifying the minimum-permissible distance between a building and a stream, watershed preservation through upstream park land acquisition along Mill Creek, and the implementation of the Mahoning County Engineer’s Office erosion and sedimentation control plan.
Dyer said, however, goals that have not been achieved include elimination of combined storm and sanitary sewer overflows, elimination of illegal waste discharges, and the exclusion of livestock from streams.
Livestock should be excluded from streams to avoid pollution from their droppings and sediment disturbance on the stream bottom, she said.
According to the Mill Creek Watershed Action Plan, the creek’s watershed has about 1,350 septic systems.
Ryan Tekac, environmental health director at the Mahoning County Board of Health, emphasized that septic-system owners need to maintain their systems and have them pumped on a regular basis as determined by tank and household size.