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How fixing a creek in rural Butler County will improve water quality in the Ohio River

man in a creekbed beside a cliff-like wall of loose soil
Tana Weingartner
Park Planner Matt Latham points to loose soil and rock in a heavily eroded streambank in Governor Bebb Metropark.

MetroParks of Butler County is getting a grant from the state's H2Ohio program. The park district will use the nearly $490,000 to stabilize the streambank along Dry Fork Creek at Governor Bebb MetroPark.

On a typical late summer morning in Okeana, near the Ohio-Indiana border, the air is sticky but the sun is shining and the sky above is a beautiful bright blue. Getting down into the creek bed from the park road above, however, is tricky.

Park Planner Matt Latham scopes out a path through the green underbrush then cautiously slides down a dirt hill to the stream below. We hike up the creek a little to the vertical, cliff-like bank of exposed dirt we're here to see.

"You can see all these exposed roots over here where the soil has just been washed away," he says, pointing to wall some five- to seven-feet taller than himself.

He points to a tree dangling precariously along the rim of the dirt wall. "This large tree here, we'll probably lose that within the next few years because of the erosion."

He climbs over to the side of the creek beside the roughly 15-foot high wall of loose, crumbling dirt and roots.

"Look how loose that is," he says as the soil falls away with a brush of his hand. "There's nothing here to resist the force of that stream continuing to push towards the north and towards our road."

Latham says the stream erosion has pushed the edge of the creek over some 20 feet, threatening the park road that runs along side it. MetroParks has already moved the road once.

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Tana Weingartner
Years of erosion have cut cliff-like walls along the creek bed, filling the creek with sediment and nutrients that end up polluting the Whitewater and Ohio rivers.

The bigger problem is all the sediment that ends up in the stream itself — sediment that contains harmful nutrients. The park is surrounded by acres of farmland, where spring rains flush runoff full of fertilizers and pesticides from the fields into streams and creeks. Those small streams end up here in the Dry Fork of the Whitewater River, which then carries the sediment, fertilizers, and pollution it collects to the Ohio River.

All those nutrients mix with sunlight and heat, creating dangerous algal blooms — think that scummy, blue-green algae you sometimes see sitting on the water's surface. The toxins in those blooms are harmful to humans and to wildlife.

"It all starts up here in these headwater streams," Latham says. "By the time this stuff gets down to the Ohio River, it's already too late. It has to be addressed as close to the source as possible, and there are thousands of these sites all over Ohio that are doing the same thing."

That's where the state's H2Ohio program comes in. MetroParks is using the $488,938 grant to stabilize the streambank. Specifically about 400 feet where it's falling away leaving a vertical, cliff-like bank of exposed dirt.

Latham says the project will regrade the slope of those walls to a stable angle.

"It's going to install reinforcement along the toe. That could either be through rocks, or through old tree stumps and root balls and natural vegetation. It's going to be replanted with with native species to get roots and root matter into that slope to really reinforce it and slow down that erosion," Latham explains. "We're also going to take a couple of the channels that go into the stream and create little wetland forebays as an additional way to remove pollutants from the water before it even gets to the stream."

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Tana Weingartner
The park road used to end in a turnaround but erosion in the stream forced the park to relocate the road. Now there are native grasses atop a regraded slope where the road once stood (at right).

MetroParks completed a similar project a few years ago a little farther downstream. We climb out of the creek bed and follow the park road through a campground to where it ends in a small parking area.

"Believe it or not, this road used to go all the way around. It used to be a turnaround area," Latham says, pointing to the edge of the creek bed rimmed in native flowers and grasses.

"The stream took out this part of the turnaround. We decided not to fight Mother Nature and try to put it back. But we did do a project where we pulled this slope back to a stable angle; installed a rock toe; and then planted all this native seed over here."

The plantings are growing so well it's hard to even see down to the stream below.

"You can see it's really taken off in the past few years. We've got some really nice black-eyed Susans over here... You can just see how how lush it is and how all these plants are rooting into the soil to try to reinforce that and slow that erosion down."

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Tana Weingartner
The park road seen here was relocated away from the creek (out of image to the left). The grove of saplings was planted with the intention that the tree roots will slow erosion along the streambank.

A short distance away, a small grove of saplings has already been planted to shore up the ground against future erosion.

Planning and design work on the latest section begin this fall. Latham expects construction to start next summer. Governor Bebb is expected to remain open during the work.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Prior to joining Cincinnati Public Radio, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She enjoys snow skiing, soccer and dogs.