Mark Bennett: A healthy river improves life along Wabash and beyond

Courtesy The Nature Conservancy/Donald HarwoodWet: Wabash River flooding was extensive in southern Indiana in 2018.

Centuries ago, Native Americans saw the Wabash River as pure water flowing over white stones.

That's how the waterway got its name, "waapaahšiiki," from the Miami tribe. European settlers later turned it into "Wabash." Over time, the river — like others altered for human uses — grew more muddy than pure.

The Wabash flows cleaner today than it did through most of the 20th century, when the river and its tributaries served as a convenient sewer for homes, industries, meat processors and communities within its watershed. Some healing began when President Nixon signed the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. 

"Pure" still doesn't fit the Wabash in 2020, but it's healthier than decades ago.

How much healthier? Environmental researchers have deployed a new "super gauge" device at New Harmony, 125 miles downstream from Terre Haute, to find out.

There is much to learn.

The Wabash sends an outsize amount of sediment and nutrients — primarily from farms, residential areas and wastewater treatment plants — downstream to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and then into the Gulf of Mexico, according to U.S. Geological Survey (or USGS). Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, found in farm fertilizers, run off into streams, spurring algae growth in the Gulf, depleting oxygen and damaging marine life and the livelihoods of Louisiana shellfish and fish marketers and recreational fishing operators. Scientists call it a "dead zone."

Runoff nutrients also can affect wildlife in and along the Wabash.

Plus, the weather extremes of climate change could increasingly disperse runoff waters through the Wabash watershed region as flooding and droughts become more intense. Average annual precipitation has increased by 5.6 inches since 1895, a 2018 Purdue University study concluded. Stronger storms and floods, coupled with harsher hot and dry spells, can boost runoff that washes into the river and communities throughout its watershed.

"We're going to have to do something with all that water," said Seth Harden, the Upper Wabash River project director for The Nature Conservancy.

The TNC works with Hoosier farmers to improve land conservation practices to mitigate runoff and to return often-flooded cropland to wetlands habitat. Both help filter runoff and other nutrients and sediment.

The contents of the water that ends up in the Wabash will be more precisely calculated by the new super gauge at New Harmony. The USGS invented the super gauge, and teamed up with The Nature Conservancy and private contributor Nestle Purina PetCare to fund the device. Since its placement in October, the super gauge has continually measured the physical and chemical characteristics of the Wabash water. The results get updated every 15 minutes on the USGS website, every day.

Such constant, in-depth analysis is a first for the Wabash, positioned near the river's convergence with the Ohio River.

"It's a really nice snapshot of what's leaving the Wabash, and what the Wabash is contributing to the Ohio, and to the Mississippi," said Molly Lott, a hydrologic technician for the USGS.

Staff from the USGS will collect water samples from the super gauge 22 times this year, Lott said.

New Harmony is the last sizable town as the Wabash flows south, just 42 miles from the river's convergence with the Ohio. Samples taken at New Harmony could include contents contributed from any point on the nearly 500-mile-long Wabash, Lott said. The river starts in western Ohio and then meanders into Indiana at Jay County. After passing through the Huntington Dam, the Wabash flows unobstructed for its final 411 miles.

It's the longest undammed stretch of river in the Eastern United States.

"That's a pretty incredible resource that we have a responsibility to steward," Harden said.

The untamed nature of the Wabash includes some environmental complications. Diversions, such as dams, tend to catch some sediment in rivers, Harden explained. Without those obstructions, land conservation practices — like farmers planting cover crops in their fields through the offseason — become more important. Cover crop farming in Indiana has grown to nearly 1 million acres a year, Harden said.

"That does a great deal to filter water," he said.

Climate change and increased precipitation results in more water to filter. Indiana is one of seven states to receive its third-wettest 12-month period from February 2019 to January 2020, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records dating back to 1895 and cited in an Environmental and Energy News report. Nine other states experienced their wettest or second-wettest year on record.

The soggy 2019 led farmers to skip planting on 20 million acres nationwide, another record cited in the report. Hoosier farmers are very aware of changing weather patterns, Harden said. They've seen historic weather extremes occur just years apart, with flooding in 2008 and the drought of 2012.

Farmers "realize we're getting larger concentrations of rain events and larger periods of drought," Harden said.

That can affect the Wabash.

"Increased flooding and runoff is likely to increase the abundance of nutrients in the river system," said Jeffery Stone, Indiana State University associate professor of environmental geo-science. "The water carries with it particles of soil and the fertilizers that are spread on them, both over the land surface and through groundwater. This will affect the quality of the river water and also the export of nutrients to, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. It also is likely to have a major impact on the agricultural fields themselves. Erosion of sediment can be a substantial problem in agriculture, as can flooding."

A USGS news release says the data collected nonstop by the super gauge at New Harmony can "tell us whether our water quality is getting better or worse" and guide decisions about managing farm land and cities' storm water.

That's good. Making the Wabash better makes life better in Indiana and beyond.

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

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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