Improvements Made but EPA Gives Bleak Report on Ohio Water Quality

Sept. 11, 2002
Ohio has only one watershed out of 330 that is clean enough to swim in and that has fish safe enough to eat.

That's the rather bleak assessment from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in its latest report on the quality of the state's rivers and streams.

The agency found only one watershed, the Clear Fork branch of the Mohican River east of Mansfield, that met the goals of the Clean Water Act.

Still, state officials say progress continues. Data show that 12 watersheds meet some, but not all, of the Clean Water Act standards. State biologists also found that nearly 50 watersheds, including the entire Chagrin River, have healthy and diverse amounts of fish and aquatic life. Both factors are indicators of good water quality.

While marked improvements have been made during the last 30 years, pollution problems today are more complex and diverse, such as storm water runoff, which the state has no power to regulate.

"We're holding our own in terms of water quality," said Lisa Morris, chief of the Ohio EPA's Division of Surface Water.

The report, required by the federal government every two years under the Clean Water Act, lists Ohio's impaired waterways and updates their cleanup status.

This is the first time the data have been combined. The findings are based on data collected during the last 10 years on fish, aquatic life and water samples.

This report differs from the past ones in many ways. First, it breaks the state's rivers and streams into 330 watershed groups, areas drained by the river or stream. In the past, the state reported pollution problems by stream segments. This report also includes data on whether water is safe for recreational use that the EPA had not included before.

Only nine watersheds have water that is safe for that use. But the EPA lacked data for more than half of Ohio.

Unlike previous reports, this one does not say how much of the state's waters are impaired. In the last report, the state said 881 segments out of 2,000 evaluated were impaired.

"The most striking thing about this report is what's not in it," said Keith Dimoff, the assistant director of the Ohio Environmental Council. "It does not answer the question, has any progress been made to cleaning up the waters? It sidesteps the question."

Morris said a trend analysis will be forthcoming.

The state also lacks sufficient information for about a third of the watersheds.

In the last five years, partly because of state budget woes, the Ohio EPA has lost 41 staff members from the Division of Surface Water, which is responsible for monitoring water quality.

Last fall, the National Wildlife Federation and two state conservation groups sued the U.S. EPA for not forcing Ohio to clean up its polluted rivers and streams.

Despite staff cuts, the EPA maintains it is working toward meeting its goal of making 80 percent of Ohio's rivers and waterways fishable and swimmable by 2010.

But one of the report's authors, Brian Alsdorf, an aquatic biologist, bluntly stated that the agency's goal "ain't gonna happen." The pollution problems are too complicated to be resolved in eight years, he said.

"Am I a pessimist for saying that? I hope not," Alsdorf said. "I like to think of myself as an optimist and have great hope for the future. But I understand the nature of these problems and the political type of will that's needed."

Morris disagreed with her staff member's assessment. "We're sure giving it our best shot," she said. "We think it's doable."

Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer