Watching our waterways

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A volunteer with the Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy performs water quality tests.

Photo provided by the Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy

By Megan Knowles

mknowles@kpcmedia.com

As residents become more interested in enjoying local waterways, they are also becoming more interested and invested in the quality of those water systems.

Fortunately, local organizations are monitoring the quality of local ditches, rivers and lakes and educating the public on what it can do to help improve the state of our water.

Testing

The Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy has been testing the waters surrounding and including Clear Lake consistently since 2008, Executive Director Bridget Harrison said.

Volunteers test for indicators like temperature, pH level and more. The results are then recorded and uploaded to Hoosier Riverwatch, a program whose mission is to increase public awareness of water quality issues and concerns.

“You can look at your overall water quality data and see if a stream is in excellent condition, good condition, medium and then, if it is bad or very bad you can take a deeper look at some of those parameters you test for and try to figure out what’s going on,” Harrison said.

Some of the parameters the conservancy tests for includes temperature and dissolved oxygen, the right balance of which are essential for animal life.

“Fish and aquatic insects…survive better in cold water, so if the water gets too hot it can impact their overall health and then they’ll be susceptible to disease and illness,” Harrison said.

Findings

Higher levels of phosphorus can be found where fertilizers have run into streams, and can cause problems not only locally but further downstream, Little River Wetlands Project Director of Preserves and Programs Betsy Yankowiak said.

“What we do on our lawns and what farmers do in their fields and what companies do in their lawns as well, what we do really affects Toledo and downstream,” Yankowiak said.

The conservancy also tests for orthophosphate levels, which can contribute to algae blooms.

Orthophosphates in Allen County has been consistently higher than the state average since 2014. In LaGrange and Noble counties it has been below the state average, while in Steuben County the numbers have been around the state average, according to data obtained from Hoosier Riverwatch. Ideal conditions are less than 0.3 milligrams per liter, according to information on the LaGrange County Lakes Council’s website.

Water quality testers also look at turbidity, which is suspended matter in the water and affects its clarity.

Allen County has made strides in water turbidity since 2012, seeing testing results below state averages. Steuben and LaGrange counties have seen results higher than the state average, while Noble County showed similar results to the state average in 2017 after a gap in reporting since 2010.

Despite some areas being better than the state averages, Yankowiak said water quality generally is “poor in a number of areas.”

This can affect property values around lakes, LaGrange County Lakes Council President Bob Hedges said.

Runoff, which contributes to water quality problems, Yankowiak said, can also factor into flooding as well.

“The farmers that were in the valley, what they’re experiencing is, with all the impervious surfaces — parking lots, streets, roofs — instead of that water infiltrating into the groundwater system it’s hitting sewers, streams, ditches and getting to the valley a lot faster. So what they’re experiencing is areas that used to be productive are now not as productive as they once were,” she said.

This, however, is where wetlands can play an important role.

The role of wetlands

In terms of flooding, wetlands can work as a holding tank and sponge to catch and absorb excess water, Yankowiak said.

“So when water is able to pool into Eagle Marsh it slows it down, so you reduce the velocity so you can help reduce the erosion capabilities of a certain rain event,” she said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife (Service) estimate that one acre of wetlands can hold 1.5 million gallons. So for Eagle Marsh that’s over a billion gallons of water during a flood event.”

In addition, wetlands act as “the kidneys of the environment” to filter out substances from the water. Sediment, nutrients and pollution suspended in the water has a chance to settle to the bottom. The result is cleaner, clearer water, Yankowiak said.

Improving water quality

Advocating for wetlands is an important part of improving water quality, said both Harrison and Yankowiak.

“In Indiana over 85 percent of our wetlands are gone and Indiana rates some of the lowest in water quality,” Yankowiak said.

Farmers who are interested in converting their land back into wetland can do so through a federal program, the Wetland Reserve Program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Yankowiak said.

The program is completely voluntary, she said, and land has to meet certain criteria, including having hydric soil – “areas that are or were wetlands will have the right soil type,” she said – and being farmed recently, among other requirements.

More information on this program can be found at //www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/easements/wetlands/.

Farmers, and those who fertilize their lawns, can also be mindful not to spray fertilizer close to waterways, Harrison said.

“There’s just a high risk of that running straight into the water source,” she said.

Furthermore, Harrison encouraged landowners to test their soil first to see if they need nitrogen or other chemicals to begin with.

Fertilizers are also available that do not include phosphorus, Hedges said.

Homeowners can help improve water quality in other ways as well.

She encouraged anyone living near a lake who has a septic system to make sure that system is working properly.

“Septic inputs into water quality can really negatively impact some of those (water quality) parameters,” she said.

In addition, she encouraged homeowners to wash their cars at a car wash or on the grass so the water can soak into the ground rather than run off into the water.

Likewise, Yankowiak said homeowners can create their own wetlands by putting in a rain garden, which traps water for up to 48 hours so it can filter into the soil rather than run off to waterways. Rain barrels can also help reduce water runoff, she said.

Other gardening tips include planting trees and other plants with deep roots to help bring surface water into the ground, Yankowiak said.

“Can you grow your garden a little wider? Can you add plants that grow a little deeper?” she asked. “It doesn’t have to be monumental. If everybody did a little bit, it would be a lot.”

Harrison believes people are starting to understand the importance of water quality.

“People love Clear Lake, they love it so much that 26 years ago they created a group to help protect it, so I think people are getting more aware of how they positively and negatively impact the lake and the water quality and I think that people are trying to make wise choices and be educated,” she said.

“The water we have is all we have, no more is created, this is it,” Harrison added. “I think if we don’t make the effort to protect the resources we have now, there’s no guaranteed we’ll have those in the future.”