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500 Miles of Wabash

July 28, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Living downstream: From source, Wabash bears mark of mankind mile after mile

Fort Recovery, Ohio — Something was missing.

I’d never visited this spot before, but the view looked familiar. I’ve walked the banks of the Wabash River and its tributaries countless times, catching crawdads and skipping rocks in Honey Creek as a kid. On the other side of the state, where the Wabash crosses from Ohio into Indiana, trees arched over the water as it ran under a bridge on a quiet country road.

It looked like western Indiana, except for one absent element.


Perhaps it was a fluke, but on this particular Wednesday in late May, at this particular spot on State Line Road between Mercer County, Ohio, and Jay County, Ind., no floating Styrofoam cups were visible. No plastic snuff canisters embedded in the mud. No trash bags dumped over the bridge. The scene was clean.

Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis snapped a photo. It’s my favorite image, among dozens, captured as we journeyed — in four different trips, in May, June and July — from the source of the Wabash in Fort Recovery, Ohio, to its confluence with the Ohio River south of Mount Vernon for a series of stories that begins today.

Just 28 miles into its nearly 500-mile course, the Ohio portion of the Wabash runs more narrow and shallow than the river Terre Hauteans see.

Likewise, the short distance means less trash has washed downstream.

A quotation from Canadian environmental scientist David Suzuki came up during our visits with some of the unique people and communities who experience the Wabash up close.

“We all live downstream,” Suzuki said. In a nutshell, the quality of the river we see is determined by folks living in towns upstream. Our actions affect others.

The concept seemed particularly abstract at the obscure headwaters of the Wabash. We trudged through a cornfield, tall grass and weeds to find the concrete culvert where water seeping through hundreds of acres of farmland emerges from two pipes — 24 and 18 inches across, respectively — forming the waterway. We stood at the edge of the chute, looking down at the murky fluid. It was hard to imagine any of its contents reaching the Ohio River almost 500 river miles away, or even Terre Haute 300 miles downstream.

Yet it does. Our actions affect others, even if they’re out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

The Wabash, indeed, sends itself forward rapidly. Ron Turco, Purdue University professor and director of the Indiana Water Resources Research Center, explained how far and fast the river travels. When asked the time it would take a drop of water at the Wabash headwaters in Fort Recovery to reach the confluence with the Ohio River, Turco came up with a calculation, but clarified a few conditions. The river flows faster above Logansport, and slower below it. Also, the river’s volume (or discharge) and its velocity (or miles per hour) are two different measures. And, the depth and width of the Wabash varies widely, affecting its velocity. The weather also affects the speed.

Realizing those disclaimers, Turco estimated that something entering the Wabash in Ohio would travel about 12 days before spilling into the Ohio River.

That trip covers 474.7 miles. (Turco helped clarify that distance, as well. Various sources list the Wabash’s length differently, from 503 miles to 487, 475 and 474. Turco considers 474.7 miles, or 764 kilometers — the total mentioned in the book, “The Wabash River Ecosystem,” by Jim Gammon — to be the definitive number.)

Ecologists, scientists and outdoors enthusiasts have tried to raise awareness among the general public that things dumped into or beside Indiana’s official state river eventually drift into the Ohio River, then the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico. On a smaller scale, someone traveling from Fort Recovery to Vera Cruz (a tiny Indiana burg), Bluffton, Markle, Huntington, Wabash, Peru, Logansport, Lafayette, Attica, Williamsport, Cayuga, Clinton, Terre Haute, Darwin, Riverview, Hutsonville, Merom, Vincennes, Mount Carmel, Grayville, New Harmony and Mount Vernon and the surrounding remote countryside will spot stray refuse ditched by someone in a town upstream.

The responsibility for the quality of the Wabash belongs to everyone living in its watershed region, which includes 700,000 Hoosiers. The task isn’t Indiana’s alone, of course. The disposal of manure produced by massive commercial turkey and chicken farms — with barns a football field long — as well as dairy, swine and beef farms near the Wabash headwaters in Ohio’s Mercer and Darke counties, and its effect on water quality, have become a contentious issues between the neighboring states who share the Wabash and other rivers, including the St. Mary’s.

Pollutants in the Wabash at its outset mirror those in Lafayette, Terre Haute and Vincennes. “It’s the same problem that everybody has in the rest of the United States — it’s sediment and nutrients,” said Laura Walker, coordinator of the Grand Lake-St. Mary’s River-Wabash River Watershed. Sediment comes largely from farm soil erosion. Nutrients such as phosphorus leeches from manure generated in farms and outdated septic systems.

“We have to handle that manure so it’s proper for water quality,” Walker said, “and sometimes that’s not on the top of everybody’s mind.”

The number of poultry, dairy, hog and beef farms in Mercer County creates “one of the most concentrated areas in the United States,” said Jim Hoorman, formerly the Ohio State University Extension educator for Mercer County and now in the same position in Putnam County.

Ninety percent of poultry manure is trucked out and applied as fertilizer outside the Wabash watershed, he explained, while more liquefied cattle and hog manure stays there. Manure restrictions — including the requirement for farmers to have a “manure nutrient plan” — are in place in Mercer County for the watershed of Grand Lake (used for recreation and drinking water supplies) but not for the smaller Wabash watershed, Hoorman said. Education efforts have raised awareness about the impact of phosphorus on water quality, he added.

Education about the river’s value matters all along its path.

The Wabash runs in a more natural state than most U.S. rivers. The last dam on its course arrives at Huntington, leaving the river’s final 411 miles unobstructed. It’s the longest stretch of free-flowing water east of the Mississippi. No longer navigable for commercial shipping, the wide open Wabash awaits recreational boaters and fishermen.

Each person on every boat or casting that fishing line is downstream. We all live downstream.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or


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