It’s a beautiful day in Ashtabula Harbor, just a few miles from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. A few recreational boats from the marina upstream pass by benches on the boardwalk along the river, and farther north, commercial freighters are loaded with coal for export to Canada and overseas.
But the Ashtabula River didn’t always present such an idyllic image. It was declared an Area of Concern (AOC) under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, after unregulated industry on the riverbanks had led to beneficial use impairments (BUIs) like restrictions on eating fish caught from the river, loss of wildlife habitat and overall environmental degradation and pollution.
For nearly 30 years, the Ashtabula River Partnership has worked on the $85 million cleanup project to restore the river and maintain economic prosperity. Now-retired Ohio Sea Grant Extension Program Leader Frank Lichtkoppler was a part of the effort from the beginning, and got to celebrate the removal of three BUIs in 2014 just before his retirement. According to Ohio Sea Grant Extension agent Jill Bartolotta, who took over Lichtkoppler’s spot on the advisory committee, the team expects the final delisting to happen by 2019.
“It wouldn’t have happened without this really long-term commitment by the Ashtabula River Partnership, and there were very few people who were with it the whole time,” said former Ohio Sea Grant director Dr. Jeff Reutter. “Frank was one of those key people, often serving as the secretary for the group, the facilitator for the group, the person that organized it and called it together, always trying to deflect recognition, but often serving as the glue to hold it together and keep it moving.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without this really long-term commitment by the Ashtabula River Partnership.”
Dr. Jeff Reutter
In 2008, a major dredging project removed 635,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments – more than 190 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth – from Ashtabula harbor, making it one of the cleanest, deepest harbors in Lake Erie. Along with fish habitat restoration upriver, the dredging project represented a major step toward removal of the last three beneficial use impairments and the area’s removal from the list of Areas of Concern.
“A lot of people worked very long and very hard to see the dredging completed,” said Lichtkoppler. “It was all the Ashtabula River Partnership members working together that made this happen, and Ohio Sea Grant was one of the founding partners of the Ashtabula River Partnership.” Having the deep draft available allowed for increased shipping opportunities, and a cleaner river helps provide new opportunities for local marinas and businesses.
One of the strengths Ohio Sea Grant Extension agents bring to the table is the ability to gather information – both scientific facts and public opinion – and present it to public officials in a way that allows them to make informed decisions about public policy based on potential economic and environmental impact.
Extension agent Dr. Scott Hardy continues that tradition farther west, as part of the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern Advisory Committee, which started as the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization in 1989. Hardy chairs the public outreach subcommittee, which helps to ensure that businesses and Cleveland residents along the Cuyahoga River are aware of the benefits a healthy river can bring to their communities.
The committee, which also includes representatives from Cleveland Metroparks, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, the Cuyahoga River Restoration Group, the Cleveland Water Alliance, and the City of Cleveland, recently had cause to celebrate when two of the beneficial use impairments were officially removed in late 2017.
“There were ten total beneficial use impairments when the river was first designated as an AOC, and of those ten, we’ve just in the past few months had two delisted,” Hardy said. “Those two are degradation of aesthetics and restrictions on recreation and public access, and they were officially removed from the list in late 2017. We’re also hoping to get restrictions on fish consumption removed in the next few months.”
The goal of the AOC program, regardless of the river it is applied to, is a healthy balance between an ecologically sound river and a thriving working waterfront. Guidance under the Clean Water Act, which focuses on making all American waters fishable and swimmable, establishes which beneficial use impairments prevent that healthy balance from being achieved. An AOC advisory committee made up of representatives from nonprofit and resource management organizations, city officials and other relevant experts makes management recommendations, follows up with agencies or individuals to make sure recommendations are implemented, and potentially organizes follow-up studies to determine that the desired effect has been achieved. Once that’s the case, they work with state and federal Environmental Protection Agency representatives to remove that BUI.
In the case of the Cuyahoga, the committee has already accomplished a lot with the removal of the first two BUIs. A survey of residents along the river indicated that people see much less pollution and debris than they did 30 years ago, showing the progress that had been made and leading to the removal of the “degradation of aesthetics” BUI.
They also made some of the more barren stretches of the shipping channel, which tends to be fortified with concrete or steel bulkheads, more fish-friendly. “What we’ve done is try to create fish habitat along those stretches both by cutting holes in the bulkhead so fish could swim through, lay their eggs and swim back out,” said Hardy. “But we’re also trying to incorporate some structure along the bulkheads where fish have protection and small fish have the ability to grow up healthy.”
“There’s been huge investments in improving access and recreation along the river. All of these developments have really impacted our ability to remove those two BUIs.”
Dr. Scott Hardy
An event in early May helped show off the upgrades made to the riverfront in pursuit of removing the “restrictions on recreation and public access” BUI. “There’s been huge investments in improving access and recreation along the river,” said Hardy. Some examples include Merwin’s Wharf, a Metroparks-owned pub and restaurant, the Foundry, a non-profit organization that offers rowing and sailing lessons to inner-city kids, and extensive development in The Flats, a mixed-use entertainment district in downtown Cleveland that includes opportunities for public access to the river. “All of these developments have really impacted our ability to remove those two BUIs,” Hardy added.
The event also gave the committee a chance for community outreach, to show more people that the river is starting to thrive again, and to drum up additional support from local and state officials and organizations for the continued work that will be needed to remove the remaining eight impairments. The ultimate goal is to have the river completely delisted as an Area of Concern by the end of 2025.
On the western side of the state, Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab director Dr. Christopher Winslow is working on another AOC, the Maumee River. The BUIs in that watershed are mostly related to fish and macroinvertebrate populations, and addressing agricultural runoff in the Maumee’s tributaries is likely to have a large positive effect on the river.
As part of a BUI workshop, Winslow, along with other subcommittee participants from the U.S. Geological Survey, The University of Toledo, Lucas County Soil and Water Conservation District and an environmental consultant, helped choose locations for construction and restoration projects that would be most effective in addressing BUIs. The committee considered everything from previously collected sediment and nutrient runoff data to whether private landowners were willing to participate in the proposed projects.
“Those potential projects were just submitted to Ohio EPA so they can assess how feasible each project is, and to develop draft restoration plans,” said Winslow. “Ohio Sea Grant staff will also continue to be involved with the AOC committee to provide expertise and help to come up with additional projects that are most likely to address the problems the Maumee River watershed is currently facing.”
That ongoing commitment characterizes all of Ohio Sea Grant’s work: making sure that agencies, elected officials and community organizations have the science-based information they need to make decisions that benefit Lake Erie, keep local ecosystems healthy and support thriving lakeshore communities.