Cuyahoga River to Killbuck Creek: Water Quality follows a long and winding path.

Karen Gotter, Water Quality Specialist

Starting on June 24, the WKSU radio station will be broadcasting a new series called “Watershed.” The topic and timing are both significant, as June 2019 is the 50-year anniversary of a fire on the Cuyahoga River that turned national attention to the condition of the Cleveland river. That particular fire was only one of many that had occurred on the Cuyahoga. Other rivers that ran through urban, industrialized areas had caught fire in many cities across the nation as well. 2014 commentary from Jonathon Adler in the Washington Post states that the significance of the 1969 fire, subsequent reporting, and follow-up changes in regulations and behaviors was that it wasn’t the “first time an industrial river in the United States caught on fire, but the last.”

I’ll admit that I am very interested in the stories that will be shared in this week’s program, where we can learn about the challenges and successes of bringing the Cuyahoga back from the brink. At the same time, I am probably more interested in making a comparison to the path of restoration that rivers I am more familiar with underwent. Thinking about the tributaries of the South Fork of the Sugar Creek, I am pretty comfortable saying that while there are still impairments, indicators of water quality have definitely improved after years of conservation work. The Clear Fork, Mohican, and Walhonding Rivers all have some localized issues, but are rivers that draw people in as tourist landmarks and are points of pride to those of us who are fortunate to live nearby and enjoy their bounty and beauty. But what about the Killbuck Creek?

A dragonfly catches its breath along the Killbuck Creek.

A dragonfly catches its breath along the Killbuck Creek.

Ironically, purchase of the ground for the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area began 50 years ago, too. Much of the work that began destabilizing the river and changing the hydrology of the watershed began much earlier, in the late 19th into the 20th century, as more land was cleared, and the river was dredged and straightened. But by the middle part of the 20th century, people were recognizing the human impacts on natural resources and landscapes. The blossoming ethic towards conservation and preservation were what launched local, state and Federal initiatives to clean up our act.

However, much of what made the Killbuck Valley a unique and important landscape feature was lost by then, and has not made a comeback. The geology and plant communities here that created a large wetland complex capable of mitigating storm flooding were destroyed when the dominant thought process was that wetlands were a nuisance to be battled against. Ohio has lost 90% of the natural wetlands once present on the landscape, second only to California. If there’s any silver lining in those numbers, it’s that now the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area is the largest remaining wetland area in Ohio, outside of the Lake Erie basin.

Macroinvertebrates are good indicators of water quality.

Macroinvertebrates are good indicators of water quality.

The benefits of wetlands are too numerous to talk about here, so I want to wrap up by thinking about what could have been, or what could be, in five, ten, or 50 years from now. If we had more wetlands paralleling the river, how many adjacent crop fields would be saved from being waterlogged? If we hadn’t cut back so many trees and built homes and businesses in the riparian areas and floodplains, would the river banks be more stable and able to handle the flow from large rainstorms? According to the EPA’s website, “The bottomland hardwood- riparian wetlands along the Mississippi River once stored at least 60 days of floodwater. Now they store only 12 days because most have been filled or drained.” In our wetter-than-ever spring, can we even fathom how valuable more wetland ground would have been to absorb 60 days worth of water? What could we be reporting on 50 years from now about the local efforts made to save the ground and livelihoods of the people who live around here? I’d like to think that Theodore Roosevelt would be proud that we heeded his words: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

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Karen Gotter, Killbuck Creek Watershed Coordinator

Karen joined the Holmes SWCD in January 2016. A current resident of Wooster, Karen splits her time between Holmes and Wayne counties, and the “home farm” near Bellville, Ohio. Since joining the staff, she has been involved with a variety of tasks within the office, including soil testing and nutrient recommendations, water sampling, conservation planning, field days and educational programming. She is on the state committee for the Ohio Envirothon, and is working with the multi-county water quality stewardship program, Credits 4 Conservation. She spends Tuesday mornings at the Farmerstown sale barn to increase SWCD’s presence in southern Holmes County, and she has taken charge of the MWCD cover crop cost-share program. The wide range of conservation projects, outreach, and technical assistance that the Soil and Water office provides is the main reason she looked for an opening in this field, and Karen considers herself extremely lucky to have found the perfect position in Holmes County. She can be reached at 330-600-3107 or kgotter@co.holmes.oh.us.