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Ottawa River project: Restoring a UT icon


Published: Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 16:08

ottawa river

Jackie Kellett / IC

Patrick Lawrence, a UT professor and leader of the Ottawa River renovation, stands on the bridge behind Carlson Library and explains some of the new additions to the on-campus waterway. These include new vegetation, standing rocks and man-made fish habitats.

Light bulbs, CD players, a car door, a 50-inch TV — all things that have been pulled from the Ottawa River running through the University of Toledo campus.

However, they’ve been replaced by natural stones, vegetation and man-made fish habitats as part of a restoration project started about four years ago and completed this week.

Headed by Patrick Lawrence, a UT professor and chair of the President’s Commission on the River, the goal of the recent river renovation was to make the waterway cleaner and a healthier ecosystem.

“Because the river was diked and straightened in 1960, it removed a lot of the natural habitat that you would normally find in a river that had not been disturbed,” Lawrence said. “We’re trying to put some of that habitat function back in.”

In addition, a new stone walking path was laid down from the East Ramp parking garage extending behind Snyder Memorial, and plans for informational signage and leisure benches are in the works, according to Lawrence.

“We only have 3700 feet of a river that’s 30 miles long,” Lawrence said, “but we’re trying to do the best that we can and do some improvements with the section that we have.”

Cherie Blair of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said this was “a university-led project,” for which Lawrence got funding from not only the Lake Erie protection fund grant, but the Stranahan Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The university, in my opinion, has been an absolutely wonderful project lead and partner on this project,” she said.

A history of contamination

Blair described the Ottawa’s history as “a legacy of contamination,” that’s been subject to waste disposal, industrial pollution and landfill overflows for decades.

In 2000, EPA testing identified the river to be in “non-attainment” of national water quality standards and the river was under a contact advisory, meaning it wasn’t safe to consume anything from the river or go into the water. The yellow warning signs dotting the banks of the campus waterway were ridiculed by students for years.

Karen Gallagher, a UT doctoral student and Lawrence’s research assistant, said she’s witnessed the students’ perception of the Ottawa as a “dirty ditch” since her time here as an undergrad.

But she also noted what she feels is a recent embracing of the campus waterway with projects like the annual Clean Your Streams event, a day devoted to removing trash from rivers across the country that hundreds of UT students attend.

“I think I’m a little bit biased because it’s changed for me for sure, but… I think the perception’s changed, and I think this project will do more to change that.”

Another part of that change could be due to the reversal of water quality EPA testing in 2011, and the removal of water-safety signage from the river banks about a year later.

Now, the waterway holds about 40 species of fish, a number only expected by Lawrence to grow due to some new fish habitats and a restructuring of the river’s shores and vegetation.

“There’s been a shift in the mindset of this community in the last, I’d say four or five years, now that we’ve fixed some of those legacy problems,” he said.

Even though Lawrence said the river isn’t perfect yet, he believes his group has made a lot of headway.

“If our students and people in our community come on campus, if they can view the river, if they can enjoy it, if they can experience it just by sitting there… then that changes people to realize this is not a terrible river,” he said.

Just part of the puzzle

The Ottawa cleanup efforts are due to a much larger Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, signed in 1972.

Blair, Maumee coordinator for the EPA, said the agreement was update in 1987 to clarify “how to handle the Great Lakes waters and both quantity and quality issues.”

“The idea behind it in ‘87 is that we’ll go out and we’ll identify what the problems are, we’ll figure out how to fix them, we’ll fix them and we’ll be done — five years, we’re out of here. We’re still here 25 years later,” she said with a laugh.

Blair said there are currently about 43 waterways listed as “areas of concern,” or bodies of water that required an action plan to get back on track.

The Maumee River, which feeds the Ottawa, is one of four rivers in Ohio that needs attention. The geographic area of the Maumee’s area of concern is almost 800 square miles and includes the Ottawa.

Dave Derrick, a river specialist with the U.S. Army corps of engineers, has traveled from his home in Vicksberg, Miss., to work on assorted Maumee River projects for about seven years.

The self-described “big kid who plays in water” said he started walking around campus with Lawrence about four years ago, asking each other about the opportunities offered up by the Ottawa.

“The whole [water system] is dysfunctional,” Derrick said, “and you try to do one little section, is that going to work? Probably not, right? It’d be like if you had a whole dysfunctional family and one person got sober, but all the rest of them were crazy… it just doesn’t work.”

Letting nature move in

Derrick said there could still be problems when it rains hard and the sewer backs up into the river, but that the most recent work done on the Ottawa will go a long way in preventing bigger problems.

“Everything that you do to improve that, there’s going to be less runoff into your river and less pollutants running off the sidewalks and oil out of the parking lots; you know, the rest of the stuff that gets into the river system and impacts the quality of the river itself,” he said. “So the more vegetation you can get on the banks and more stability and the less sediments and less pollutants, then the better your system.”

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