OAK HARBOR, Ohio - A study by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency finds the Toussaint River watershed in Ottawa, Sandusky, and Wood counties is recovering from decades of pollution caused by sewage discharges and agricultural runoff, but still has a ways to go to meet federal water-quality standards.
The study found 45 percent of the watershed meets warm-water habitat standards for aquatic life, but streams are below standards for recreational use.
"We need to do better, but it's not real surprising," EPA spokesman Dina Pierce said.
The agency is evaluating the state's 242 watersheds or subwatersheds under a federal mandate, a process it hopes to complete by 2014. Ms. Pierce said EPA's ultimate goal is to make all the state's waterways "swimmable and fishable."
EPA has no advisories in place concerning recreational use of the Toussaint or its tributaries, but Ms. Pierce said those who want to fish the streams or have other contact with the water need to watch where they do so. For instance, she advised avoiding areas immediately downstream from wastewater treatment plants.
The 86-page report cites sewage runoff as a key factor in the watershed's contamination, both from failing septic systems in western Ottawa County and a combined storm and sanitary system in the Wood County village of Luckey.
"The Luckey [wastewater treatment plant] is known to combine storm water with sanitary wastewater, resulting in discharges of raw or partially treated sewage to Toussaint Creek. In addition, failing septic systems near unsewered communities including Elliston, Graytown, and Rocky Ridge likely influenced the high bacterial count noted throughout the study area," the report states.
Luckey submitted engineering plans to the Ohio EPA on Nov. 12, 2004, for a sewer separation project. Ms. Pierce said those plans haven't been approved yet, but that construction could begin in about a year.
However, the addition of sewers in the Ottawa County communities cited in the report is probably a ways off, said Kelly Frey, the county's sanitary engineer. "They are not in our five-year plan," he said.
Mr. Frey said the county finished a nearly $1 million sewer installation project late last year in Clay Center and is working on a $1.3 million plan to add sewers in a section of northwest Clay Township, near Genoa. Both projects were possible because of state and federal grants, and any further sewer work depends on such funding to make it affordable for residents, he said.
The village of Genoa completed a 10-year sewer separation project in 2002, and that should help improve water quality in the western part of the watershed, Ms. Pierce said.
Also helping are programs to increase the use of filter strips and other land conservation methods by farmers in the watershed, where about 77 percent of the land is under agriculture use.
Since 1997, more than 300 landowners in the watershed have signed contracts to convert some of their cropland into riverfront floodplains and establish filter strips, patches of grass that filter out chemicals by slowing the flow of water.
Carol Benner, district program administrator for the Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District, said the EPA study demonstrates the benefits of conservation measures, both for farmland and water quality. "You have a lot of farmers out there doing a lot of good things, and realizing it's not so bad to give up some of their acreage," she said.
- STEVE MURPHY