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Film focuses on Maumee water quality

DEFIANCE - Sparked by the discovery of a 1965 documentary of the polluted Maumee River basin, environmentalists are documenting water-quality improvements and challenges facing the largest tributary in the Great Lakes.

“While we have a lot of water-quality improvements over the years, we have a lot of new challenges,” said Jenny Carter, project director and a ClearWater, Inc., board member. “In the 1960s, there were no regulations. It was pre-Clean Water Act. A lot of communities had sewage and chemical discharges going into the water.”

Now, the main pollutants are from “nonpoint sources - sources that come from everyday activities like our lawn and agriculture,” she said. “They're not coming out of a pipe.”

Filming of the 30-minute documentary Fate of a River: Revisited is nearly complete. It will air in late November on WGTE-TV, Channel 30 and include clips from the 1965 film Fate of a River: Apathy or Action.

The original 8mm film, found in a closet at the University of Toledo about eight years ago, depicted foaming detergents, gasping fish, raw sewage, and industrial discharges. It was converted to video and shown at several water-quality meetings, Ms. Carter said, and sparked several groups including Maumee Remedial Action Plan and Ottawa River Coalition in Lima, Ohio, to tackle the new film.

A $48,785 grant from the Ohio Environmental Education Fund and nearly $25,000 in donations are funding the documentary that covers all the tributaries in the watershed spanning 22 counties in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. About 30 local leaders and naturalists in Defiance, Toledo, Lima, and Fort Wayne, Ind., have been interviewed, Ms. Carter said. “We hope that the general public can look at this video and make a difference. It's designed to educate them and challenge them to take action,” she said.

Contamination in the Maumee River watershed is severe, according to the federal government.

In the spring, a General Accounting Office report criticized watershed restoration efforts. In May, U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) and Carl Levin (D., Mich.) co-sponsored a bill that would raise annual funding for the federal Great Lakes National Program Office from nearly $18 million this year to as much as $50 million annually.

The city of Toledo has spent more than $40 million to separate antiquated sewer lines and plans to spend $400 million over the next 15 years to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and the sewage network, according to the department of public utilities.

Local officials agree water quality has improved greatly over the past several years, but there's still a long way to go.

“Pollutants come from many different sources. Certainly, a big source is sewage, but that's a source that's regulated,” said Kurt Erichsen, vice president of environmental services with the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.

Nonpoint sources are not regulated.

Phosphorus and nitrogen come from the runoff of soil fertilizers and chemicals and contaminate waterways.

“People need to understand whatever you dump down a catch basin goes straight to a river, no treatment,” Mr. Erichsen said.

Awareness is key to cleanup, Ms. Carter said.

“If your car has an oil leak, that's going to generate a lot of pollution. One quart of oil could span the length of a football field in the local streams.

“That ditch or creek behind your house that seems insignificant all flows into another water source, river, or stream into Lake Erie,” she said.

Ms. Carter hopes this documentary will encourage people to respect the Maumee River watershed. The original film reached nearly 80,000 people, and played a role in the passage of the Clean Water Act.

“It was a local film that had national impact,” she said.

The new documentary is “a comprehensive educational program,” Ms. Carter said. It will be copied and sent to schools and libraries in the watershed area.

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