The long view on water quality


Now and then, it helps to step back and take the long view — to think about the broad effects our actions could have in the future, instead of just the immediate results. Elected officials from Delaware County are currently taking action on two issues that could have long-range impacts on water quality in central Ohio.

The first issue is Delaware County commissioners’ stated objection to impending rule changes under the Clean Water Act. The second is Sen. Kris Jordan’s sponsorship of a budget provision that allows residents who live along reservoirs to trespass on public lands and remove vegetation intended to protect public drinking water resources. Columbus officials are now considering legal action to prevent this provision from becoming law.

Please consider what is at stake and ask yourself if the positions taken by your elected representatives align with your views, and a long view toward environmental stewardship.

Last week The Gazette reported on county commissioners’ plan to send a letter to Congress urging them to delay revisions to the Clean Water Act, changes that were jointly announced by U.S. EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to define the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act. These area changes that county officials have said “could stymie development and lead to costly compliance.”

Since Ohio EPA rules already cover many of the water bodies in question, it is doubtful that federal rule changes will result in sweeping changes in Ohio, much less in Delaware County. Based on results of the 2010 census, from 2000 to 2010 the state of Ohio experienced an overall growth rate of 1.6 percent while Delaware County boasted a growth rate of 58.4 percent. Clearly, stymied development should not a pressing concern for the residents of Delaware County.

Commissioner Barb Lewis was quoted in The Gazette as stating that “the federal EPA has overreached on this.” According to the Congressional Research Service, revisions to the Clean Water Act are being made to comply with 2001 and 2006 Supreme Court rulings that more narrowly interpreted the regulatory scope of the law. The intent of the rule revisions is to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act protections and to make the rule more predictable in a more timely fashion. The changes do not exceed the Clean Water Act’s lawful coverage or protect new types of waters that have not been protected historically.

The other objection that has been voiced about the Clean Water Act changes is that they may hamper maintenance of farm drainage ditches and municipal storm water control features. The rule changes are particularly focused on clarifying the regulatory status of surface waters and lists waters that would not be subject to the Clean Water Act. The rule revisions explicitly exclude prior converted cropland and certain ditches, and they make no change to existing exclusions for normal farming and ranching activities. The rule also includes a historic exclusion for storm water control features.

While the Clean Water Act revisions will enlarge jurisdiction beyond that under the existing EPA-Corps guidance, it would not enlarge jurisdiction beyond what is consistent with the Supreme Court’s current reading of jurisdiction and would reduce jurisdiction over some waters, as a result of exclusions and exemptions.

The Clean Water Act, with or without revisions, will probably never please all interested parties, but the consensus among groups that had criticized the revisions in the past is that the latest version will bring much needed clarity. The rule is scheduled to become effective on Aug. 28.

Permission to trespass

In June, Gov. John Kasich signed a $71.2 billion two-year state budget. Before signing the budget, Kasich made extensive use of his line-item veto, striking 44 provisions from the sweeping spending blueprint. Unfortunately, Kasich did not veto the so-called “permission-to-trespass” provision that allows residents who live near reservoirs to remove vegetation from public land, vegetation intended to protect public water resources. Two years ago, when this issue first came up, the governor did veto it.

This summer the city of Columbus has been struggling with water quality problems in its drinking water. On July 13, Columbus finally lifted a two-week tap water advisory for water from the Dublin Road water plant. High nitrate levels had made the water unsafe for infants (younger than 6 months of age) and pregnant women to drink.

But the threats to Columbus’ drinking water didn’t end there. Bacteria, herbicides and algae must be measured, filtered and treated daily and construction is underway now on a new facility at the Dublin Road plant to filter nitrates in the future. It is estimated to cost $35 million and is being paid for through a series of customer rate increases. Last year, the city spent more than $1 million to treat water at the Hap Cremean water plant after algae that formed in Hoover Reservoir made tap water taste and smell like pond water. Both of these situations could have been alleviated with the maintenance of conservation buffer strips designed to intercept pollutants.

The benefits of conservation buffer strips are well established and include slower water runoff which traps sediment bearing fertilizers, pesticides, pathogens and heavy metals. Conservation buffer strips reduce noise and odor, are a critical source of food, nesting cover and shelter for many wildlife species and provide connecting corridors that allow wildlife to move safely from one habitat area to another. Conservation buffer strips are also aesthetically pleasing to many people.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Ohio EPA, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio State Extension Service all encourage the establishment of conservation buffer strips. In fact, Rob Leeds, Delaware County’s Ohio State Extension officer, was lead author on an Extension Service fact sheet the describes the application, installation and maintenance of vegetative filter strips.

In central Ohio, the battle between public utility operators and land owners along reservoirs and rivers certainly isn’t new. For decades, homeowners have claimed their right to remove vegetation located on public lands. Columbus established a land stewardship program as a means of working with the more than 1,200 landowners who live adjacent to city-owned reservoir property. Stewardship plans, developed cooperatively between the property owner and the city’s land stewardship coordinator, allow neighbors to maintain private docks and walkways to the water’s edge but strives to improve water quality by reducing runoff and erosion and encouraging native habitats along the shoreline.

Delaware County is home to several of central Ohio’s important water resources, which are utilized for both recreation and potable supply. In light of Columbus’ ongoing recent drinking water concerns, why does Sen. Jordan think that we should allow adjacent homeowners to remove protective trees and vegetation? Is it to improve their view? If so, we can only hope that they take a long view with the interests of others in mind.

Hallie SerazinContributing columnist

Hallie Serazin has lived in Delaware on property adjacent to the Scioto River for 31 years. She is vice president of the Delaware County League of Women Voters. Currently employed by Stantec, she has more than 25 years of experience working in the field of environmental toxicology.

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