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Ohio EPA may not give OK to finish irrigation job

SANDUSKY -A state official told a crowd of more than 150 people last night that the Barnes Nursery irrigation project is not assured of approval, despite a federal agency's preliminary OK last week.

Laura Fay, a permit reviewer for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's division of surface water, said the state has not decided whether to allow completion of a partially-dug channel near the Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve.

The 60-foot wide channel, to include three “waterfowl nesting islands,” would be used to supply 350,000 gallons of water a day from east Sandusky Bay to the nursery in Huron.

“We have not made any decisions yet,” Ms. Fay said during a public hearing in Sandusky High School. “We are not for or against the project.”

She said the EPA's options include ordering nursery owner Robert Barnes to restore the area to the way it was before he started digging in June, 2000.

“If Ohio EPA denies the permit, the islands and the hydrological channel will have to be put back the way they were,” Ms. Fay said, eliciting a smattering of applause and some boos from the audience.

Environmentalists have fought the project, arguing that it could destroy bay-area wetlands, which are a marshy refuge for migratory birds and plants.

The Army Corps of Engineers granted Mr. Barnes a permit last year, then ordered him to stop work and revoked the permit. Mr. Barnes later applied for another permit, and the corps gave him permission Friday to go ahead with the project if he gets water-quality certification from the EPA.

Last night, officials from the EPA and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources answered questions for 90 minutes from project opponents and supporters, then listened to comments from both sides.

Roger Thoma, a fisheries biologist with ODNR, said the channel's mud sides would discourage the growth of plant life in the water, hurting the habitat for fish such as yellow perch and promoting “junk fish” such as carp instead.

“Where he did his digging, he created an environment where there is no vegetation in the water,” Mr. Thoma said. “If you leave it the way it is now, five years from now it will not have vegetation. It will not be healthy. The carp will be the dominant species in an environment like that.”

Several residents who spoke up said Mr. Barnes should buy water from Erie County or find a source other than the bay.

“These people are not doing this just to protect anything,” said Nancy Bettridge of Sandusky. “These people, as businessmen, are doing this for their own benefit.”

Ms. Fay said Mr. Barnes found alternative water supplies to be too costly. Hooking into the Erie County water system would cost $400,000, plus a monthly charge of $35,000 for the first year, she said. Wells tested in the area would not supply enough water, she added.

“The applicant argued that those [options] were not feasible,” she said.

Peter McGory, a Sandusky resident, argued that the project wouldn't affect water levels in the bay or lake.

“Whether they do this or they don't do this, the rest of it isn't going to be affected,” he said.

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