Proposal would reduce water samples monitored in Ohio's rivers, streams

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For 40 years, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has had one of the top biological water quality monitoring programs in the country.

But testing frequency has lapsed in recent years, and it has sometimes taken 20 or more years for researchers to get back out to some of the state’s 98 watersheds. The agency has proposed moving to a new monitoring program that would funnel the watersheds into 37 “project areas” to reduce the sampling areas.

The goal of the program has always been to identify streams harmed by pollution, ascertain what pollutants are responsible and develop plans to get those waterways healthy again. The water is checked for the health of the fish, presence of aquatic insects and water chemistry. The information assessed is done as part of the requirements to meet the Clean Water Act.

By surveying fewer sites, agency staff anticipate the project areas would be surveyed once every 12 years.

“It’s not a degradation of the program. We see it really as more of an enhancement,” said Ohio EPA Director Laurie Stevenson. “We have decades of data that we’ve collected. We think that allows us to have this foundation by using this enhanced technique, or method, combined with additional data collection, is really going to be an enhancement to the program because we’ll be able to get out to project areas, we think, more frequently with this new proposal.”

Chris Tavenor, staff attorney with Ohio Environmental Council, said the decreased number of samples means there will be less data when making decisions about water quality.

“They’re not going to have as much localized data for water quality certification programs and high degradation assessments, and just permits,” he said. “And so we’re really concerned about when you are increasing the sizes of these project areas. Watersheds that maybe in the past got 100 samples may now get 30.”

The program change comes after Gov. Mike DeWine in March introduced an initiative, H2Ohio, that would provide funding and protect water quality through a number of projects.

“Obviously there is some political will in this state to really focus on water quality. I mean, that’s why H2Ohio made it through the budget,” Tavenor said. “Monitoring is going to be super important as H2Ohio gets implemented to make sure that the projects are effective.”

To estimate the water quality at the state level, researchers would conduct a probability survey, according to the proposed changes.

“A relatively small sample from a population of sites would generate estimates of the population as a whole,” according to the strategy, where researchers would use headwaters, wadeable streams and large rivers to assess health.

Chris Yoder is the research director for the Midwest Biodiversity Institute, a Hilliard-based scientific research and education nonprofit dedicated to finding techniques for evaluating, protecting and restoring the environment. He helped develop the current monitoring program when he worked for the Ohio EPA decades earlier.

“They will no longer be doing as many investigations of pollution sources, or at least not as effectively, as was done before. They are instead proposing a probabilistic approach. The analogy I like to use in explaining this approach is, you have 12 people in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. The doctor calls one of those people in for an exam and writes up the results,” he said. “And (the doctor) walks out with 12 pieces of paper and assigns those results to everyone else without conducting an exam of the other 11 people.”

Elissa Yoder Mann, a conservation program manager for the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club, said it’s another environmental standard that is being weakened.

“How are you really gonna have a pulse on the health of our rivers?” she said. “We have more waste coming in, we have more pipelines, developing polluting our waters. And yet, we’re just going to start monitoring less. … Who’s looking out for protection of our waterways? It doesn’t seem like Ohio EPA is.”

Stevenson said the proposed changes are not changes to “regulation, or law, or anything to, again, diminish the program or responsibility.”

“Like anything else, we’re looking at feedback. We’re going to look at the comments that we receive. And we’re going to figure out how we move forward in the best way that we also feel is going to be protective, and continue to move us forward for the water quality goals for the state,” she said.

“Ohio EPA is in a really unfortunate situation where they’ve been struggling to make this monitoring program work. This is their solution, but we don’t think this is the best solution,” Tavenor said. “They’re trying to make the best of what they can right now, though.”

The deadline for the public to comment on the proposed change is Monday. Comments can be submitted at [email protected]

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@ByBethBurger