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Communities form coalition to study water quality

A coalition of communities in Montgomery, Butler, Hamilton and Warren counties have joined together to pursue a study of the water quality of the Lower Great Miami River.

“They are going to conduct an analysis of the entire river basin to determine what degree of problem may exist, where it’s coming from, and how to solve it in the most cost effective manner,” said Eric Smith, city manager for Englewood, a coalition member.

As a part of the process of getting this proposed study completed, coalition representatives are meeting on a regular basis with officials from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which normally conducts these types of studies, but not on a frequent basis.

Water quality studies conducted by the EPA play a role in water and sewer rates issued by local municipalities and help to set the standards for regulating wastewater treatment plants, according to the coalition members.

“We could see this as an opportunity to sit down and negotiate with the EPA and try to come up with something that provides affordable services for our rate payers and yet also improves water quality,” said Jason Tincu, Water Reclamation manager for Dayton.

The coalition is seeking more up-to-date data on the water quality of the section of the river that flows from around Dayton to where the river connects to the Ohio River, west of Cincinnati.

“It’s a coalition of communities along the Great Miami River that own discharging wastewater treatment plants,” said Sarah Hippensteel Hall, manager of watershed partnerships with the Miami Conservancy District.

This newspaper’s search of the Ohio EPA’s online database showed that the last report on the water quality of the Lower Great Miami River was issued in 2012, but used samples that were collected in 2010.

“Obviously, we would love to get more up-to-date information and validate that science,” Tincu said. “Normally these processes take two years to put together, but because of the complexity of the Great Miami River and it’s hydraulic formations, (the Ohio EPA) is having difficulty with it.”

In addition to studying the health of the river, the proposed study would look at the pollution caused by sediments that flow into the water.

“There are series of places along the river that are more impaired than other places and they happen to occur behind low head dams,” Hippensteel Hall said. “There is a place in the river where a low head dam goes across and the river slows down and settles in a lake situation. When pollutants come down the river, they slow down and settle out in those pool areas. So those pool areas tend to be less healthy than a free flowing river.”

There are both urban (wastewater treatment plants) and rural (agriculture) contributors to the river’s pollution issues, Hippensteel Hall said.

“The question is, do we force wastewater treatment plants into a $50 million technology upgrade if we’re not really sure the pollution problem is coming from them?” Hippensteel Hall said.

Coalition members said a new study can help the Ohio EPA and the local governments that make up the coalition decide if more attention should be placed on preventing pollutants from entering the river, thus affecting drinking water, or making wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

“One of the main contributors to the river not meeting state water quality standards is nutrients,” Hippensteel Hall said. “Nutrients come from both phosphorus and nitrogen.”

Phosphorus is a primary concern, according to Hippensteel Hall. Phosphorus makes way for algae growth and algae consumes the water’s oxygen and sometimes gives off a toxic by-product.

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Phosphorus became an issue in Toledo this summer when algae turned Lake Erie green and produced toxins leading officials to ban the use of tap water for two days in August.

“The EPA is pursuing approaches to control nutrients within the local waterways, especially in light of the recent Toledo issue with the drinking water there,” Tincu said. “With that, the normal process for the EPA is to complete what’s called a Total Maximum Daily Load study.”

The study involves the EPA evaluating the natural capacity of the waterway to handle different pollutants.

Tincu said the goal of the coalition is to, “make sure that they are working with accurate and validated information before we get forced to make upgrades that possibly could be relying on incorrect information.”

The jurisdictions formed the coalition after hearing about problems with the EPA’s TMDL study, according to Tincu.

The coalition reached out to the EPA to see if the organization wanted to collaborate.

This is unique given the fact that traditionally, if a municipality wanted additional information on the EPA’s TMDL, they would make an appeal through court, according to Tincu.

“That’s just unproductive expenditures for the local folks, as well as the state folks. So, we’re trying to bridge kind of a new day here, sitting down collaborating with the EPA,” he said.

One of the main purposes for the coalition and the EPA to meet is to come up with manageable approaches to reduce the pollutants, according to Tincu.

One way to reduce pollutants is the use of water quality trading programs, which allows a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit holder (also known as a point source) to meet its regulatory obligations by using pollutant reductions generated by another wastewater point source or non-point source.

Dayton, Englewood, Union and the Tri-Cities Authority participate in the The Great Miami River Watershed Water Quality Credit Trading Program.

More than 70 percent of this watershed is in agricultural land use, according to Hippensteel Hall.

This trading program, which has been around for 10 years, allows these wastewater treatment plants to purchase credits to use to comply with their discharge permits to pay for upstream agricultural practices that reduce nutrient run-off.

This means farmers are paid for their enhanced conservation practices, such as putting in filter strips along the rivers that can filter out the nutrients that run-off their farms and into the river, according to Smith.

Smith also said that the proposed study would look at the effectiveness of this credit trading program.

Tincu said these types of programs help to remove pollutants from the waterways and allow municipalities to keep costs down.

“Doing best management practices on agricultural farm fields can be much more affordable than putting in new concrete structures and processes at a wastewater treatment plant,” Tincu said.

“Under the right circumstances, water quality trading has the potential to yield both environmental and economic benefits,”said Dina Pierce, an Ohio EPA media coordinator.

She also said nutrient reduction in surface waters is a priority for the state, adding that “Ohio EPA supports water quality trading programs as a tool for achieving nutrient reductions and improving water quality.”

In order to do their own study of the river, the jurisdictions involved in the coalition will share the cost of obtaining a consultant to conduct their study.

The cost for the study has not yet been determined because the coalition has not selected a consultant.