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Mark Bennett Opinion

March 4, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Perception of Wabash River’s water quality doesn’t always match reality

TERRE HAUTE — People like chocolate milk. In a glass. Fresh from the fridge.

Rivers of a chocolate-milk hue aren’t so appealing.

That deceptive image plagues the Wabash. Its water is not pristine, but cleaner than it appears.

“It’s a lot better than people give it credit for. It just doesn’t look good,” said Ron Turco, a Purdue University agronomy professor and director of the Indiana Water Resource Center. “It’s like having an expensive sports car with a really bad paint job.”

A coalition of arts organizations aims to raise awareness of the Wabash through a 2013 Year of the River celebration. Festivals, art exhibits, concerts, ecology seminars and bankside cleanups could educate local folks about a river whose watershed area is home to 60 percent of the Indiana population. In the process, the community also needs to conquer its phobia about the water quality of the Wabash.

That said, some fears are rooted in good old common sense, and are not the stuff of urban legend or fantasy. For example, at a Year of the River planning meeting Tuesday, Angie Tilton of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Healthy Rivers Initiative emphasized afterward that the water quality of the Wabash is improving, but that progress is far from complete.

“Right now, I don’t think a person can go down there and scoop it up and drink it,” she said.

If you just shrieked, “Ewww,” and pushed away your breakfast plate, your reaction is understandable, quite Hautean and valid. Sipping untreated Wabash water is not a sign of wisdom. Unfortunately, that is the extreme standard of cleanliness many of us subconsciously apply to the Wabash. In reality, few if any American rivers would be clean enough to drink au naturel from cupped hands, Turco explained.

The Wabash is capable of reaching more realistic environmental goals, and — compared to other U.S. waterways — already fares well in some notable categories. In terms of fish and wildlife, its watershed area (which includes its tributaries and shore-side lands) houses more than 400 species of native plants and organisms. The 43,000 acres of Wabash River and Sugar Creek floodplain — set aside in 2010 as a protected wildlife corridor by Gov. Mitch Daniels through his Healthy Rivers Initiative — contains many of Indiana’s rarest fish, birds, mussels and plants. Bird watchers can gaze at bald eagles, great blue heron and Cerulean warblers on the river banks.

“Indiana’s river,” as its enthusiasts bill it, also is a source for, yes, caviar. Shovelnose sturgeon, whose roe (or eggs) comprise the delicacy, are found in the Wabash. “It’s becoming a primary producer” for that fish, said Reuben Goforth, assistant professor of aquatic ecology at Purdue.

The presence of those unique wildlife represent an upside of the Wabash.

On the ecological downside, 30 species of fish and freshwater mussels once native to the Wabash are no longer found along its undammed, 475-mile path from western Ohio to its junction with the Ohio River, according to the Nature Conservancy. A two-year study released in 2008 by the conservancy, and funded by Alcoa Corp., gave the Wabash a “fair” rating on its Fish Community Index.

Deforestation, sedimentation, pollution and the loss of floodplain wetlands contributed to the disappearance of those species. Bringing those aquatic creatures back and enhancing existing wildlife are realistic objectives for the Healthy Rivers Initiative and the many other civic and nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving the Wabash, according to Tilton.

“Until we can say all of those species are living here healthy, I don’t think we can say our job is done,” she said.

Tributaries affect quality

Plenty of activity and work is going on by those dozens of agencies, individuals and groups upstream and down.

At West Lafayette, Purdue researchers have monitored test samples taken weekly from the Wabash for the past 2 1/2 years. They’ve learned that the river’s water quality differs widely from season to season. Levels of nitrates can spike during the crop-growing season when farmers apply fertilizers. In later months, the levels subside. On average, the Wabash’s nitrate numbers are higher than ideal, but, “we don’t see huge levels” in the river, Turco said. Nitrates also occur naturally, he added.

Likewise, E. coli levels vary significantly, Turco said, from lows during the “swimmable” summer months when municipal wastewater treatment plants ramp up their treatments, to higher levels in the fall and winter. On some days, E. coli levels drop to zero, he said, while a cold-weather day may see peaks from 300 to 600 cells per 100 milliliters of water.

Also, those statistics on the mainstream of the Wabash are not the only relevant numbers. The river itself is a reflection of the dozens of tributaries, drainage ditches and wetlands feeding it. The Wabash drains 32,910 square miles of land in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. Anything injected into its watershed by construction sites, industries, small-town and big-city wastewater plants, electrical utilities, farmers, illegal trash dumpers, and everyday people affects the river quality. The vastness of that network complicates conservation efforts. An environmental focus on the finger streams, such as Honey Creek, is crucial.

“So all those little ditches and streams that come in, the attention should really be on them,” Turco said.

The Wabash water in Terre Haute is a product of places upstream, such as Clinton, Lafayette and Logansport. “Everything you see in the river got there before it got to you,” Turco said. In one place on a particular day, the water may be quite clean. Elsewhere, later, it could be heavy with herbicides, insecticides and other pollutants. The primary substance they send into the Wabash is eroded sediment, which also carries fertilizer from farm runoff and algae.

That’s what creates the eye-catching murky tint.

“I don’t think [the water quality] is as bad as everyone thinks it is,” Turco said. “The problem the Wabash has is in the sediment and the algae that make it cloudy. It’s not the Cuyahoga River in Ohio that caught on fire.”

Better, but progress must continue

That infamous moment in 1969 led to the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. As a result of that legislation, rivers now provide 64 percent of the treated public drinking water supplies in the U.S., according to AmericanRivers.org. In fact, the Cuyahoga is the source for water in Akron, Ohio, the website said.

(In Terre Haute, before 1966, the Wabash was the sole source of water treated and distributed locally by Indiana American Water Co., said Joe Loughmiller, the company’s external affairs manager in Indianapolis. From 1966 to 1991, the Wabash provided two-thirds of the water treated by Indiana American. Since 1991, the company has relied exclusively on groundwater, gathered in a collecting well from underground aquifers, he explained. Groundwater is more reliable, consistent and efficient, when available in sufficient quantities, Loughmiller said.)

The water quality of rivers such as the Wabash has improved since the 1960s and ’70s, though problems still need addressed. Cities on its banks, including Terre Haute and Lafayette, are upgrading their wastewater treatment facilities. The Nature Conservancy advocates reforestation of the Wabash floodplain, farm soil conservation, and rehabilitation of drainage ditches running into the river.

For now, the chocolate color from sediment streaming into the Wabash lingers, but it should not dissuade Hoosiers from seeing it as a recreational resource, Turco said. Using the proper locations and safety precautions, the Wabash is a generally safe resource for fishing, boating and even swimming, he said. Changing public perception of its approachability hinges on growth of such activities.

“The really critical thing is to get people on the river to use it for recreational purposes,” Turco said.

So, Terre Hauteans’ Year of the River outdoors assignment could be to fish from the pier at Fairbanks Park, canoe down Sugar Creek, or join a Wabash River conservation group. Those who do will likely care about — and care for — the river more.

“We all have a role in keeping that river healthy,” Tilton said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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