WASHINGTON – The struggle to preserve the Little Miami River amidst continued suburban growth near Cincinnati made its way to the national spotlight Wednesday.
The Little Miami is one of 10 rivers on “America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2005,” a yearly report published by American Rivers,a Washington-based river conservation group. The report highlights rivers across the United States that face significant threats in the coming year to water quality,wildlife and public health.
“All of the rivers that are on our 10 most endangered rivers list are the rivers that aren't necessarily the most polluted; they're the rivers that have really uncertain futures and have a real decision point facing them right now,” said Quinn McKew,American Rivers associate director.
Two key threats landed the 105-mile Little Miami in the No. 7 spot on this year's list – the expansion of the Sycamore Creek Sewage Treatment Plant in Hamilton County and a planned bridge that is part of the Eastern Corridor Project,which aims to improve transportation between Cincinnati and its near east suburbs.
Eric Partee,executive director of the preservationist group Little Miami Inc.,said the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's regulations on the Sycamore Creek plant are not strong enough,especially in limiting phosphorous,too much of which can cause oxygen-draining algae blooms in the river.
“The particular concern there is that we're not totally convinced the requirements the EPA is looking at now will really do the job,” he said.
In February,the Ohio EPA granted the permit to expand the plant on Sycamore Creek,which feeds into the Little Miami,because its current capacity cannot handle the volume of sewage produced in the area,said Bruce Smith,Ohio EPA environmental specialist. He said the water quality standards are adequate.
“Overall,the situation will be significantly better after this expansion than the current conditions,” he said. “The permit we issued is by no means a lax permit. It's a fully stringent permit,and we're convinced it protects the water quality of the Little Miami.”
Also under debate is a combined rail,trail and highway bridge proposed by Eastern Corridor planners. McKew said she doubts it will improve traffic in the area.
“There's not a single major highway that's been built that hasn't led to more traffic in a five- to 10-year period,” she said. “So don't look at this bridge as a way of relieving your rush hour traffic problems,because it's not going to happen.”
Partee said transit improvements could be made by expanding existing river crossings.
But Steve Wharton,deputy project manager with Eastern Corridor consultant Balke American,said those options were deemed inadequate for the demands of the heavily populated area. State and federal transportation departments issued a report in October that said the planned bridge would have a minimal negative impact on the Little Miami.
“It's just not a matter of a bridge over a river,” Wharton said. “It's really matter of looking at the balance between the natural and built environment and understanding you can actually create a context for design or a solution that actually can advance more than just one particular stakeholder's agenda.”
The National Park Service expressed concerns about the bridge in a letter to project planners in December. Wharton said the bridge,which would be part of a 13-mile stretch of highway connecting Interstate 71 near Silverton to I-275 and Ohio state Route 32 near Batavia Township,is still at least five years away from construction.
Environmental groups have been fighting for years to preserve the Little Miami. A local effort to clean the river three decades ago earned it a National Wild and Scenic River designation by the National Park Service in 1980,and 70 percent of its riverfront is protected through ownership by preservation groups or local zoning codes,Partee said.
“You have a river that was cleaned up and preserved by the people that is now starting to backslide due to neglect by the state,” McKew said.
The endangered rivers report was released at a press conference here Wednesday.
This is the second straight year an Ohio river made the list. The Big Darby Creek,west of Columbus,was No. 9 last year.
The other rivers on the list are the Susquehanna,in New York,Pennsylvania and Maryland; McCrystal Creek,in New Mexico; the Fraser,in Colorado; the Skykomish,in Washington state; Roan Creek,in Tennessee; the Santee,in South Carolina; the Price,in Utah; and the Tuolumne and Santa Clara,in California.