Great Parks of Hamilton County is in the middle of a multi-year assessment of local watersheds in need of preservation or rehabilitation. Naturalists are inspecting more than 1,000 primary headwater streams throughout the Great Parks system.
Primary headwater streams are the smallest bodies of water that converge before running into larger streams and lakes. Often nameless, they drain no more than a square mile each and can sometimes run dry.
"Primary headwater streams are often overlooked and can be perceived as a nuisance or just insignificant," says Amanda Nurre, watershed specialist with Great Parks. "It's important for the public to know that these streams have a cumulative effect on our larger waterways, our lakes and larger rivers that we typically think of."
These streams are important because they keep sediment and other organic matter out of larger waterways. They're also corridors for wildlife and native fauna. However, they're susceptible to development, with their importance downplayed based on small size.
"Headwaters do the hard work of removing sediment and nutrients before the water reaches rivers and lakes; destroying them can lead to big problems downstream such as explosive algae blooms. Eliminating primary headwaters can also be one of the biggest causes for intense erosion downstream and leads to sedimentation in our lakes."
Nurre is using the Headwater Habitat Evaluation Index created by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. She assesses each stream's physical characteristics, measuring width, depth and analyzes the substrate composition - meaning what's on the bottom of the stream. The information helps Nurre develop a score and is, she says, a good predictor of the stream's biological condition.
"We're always trying to better manage our resources, and one way we can do that is knowing what we have," Nurre explains. "It's important because it allows us to assess the biological capability of the stream. It lets us know what it has the capacity to provide in terms of habitat to certain fauna."
It also helps Great Parks prioritize areas that might need restoration and make sure high-quality streams are protected.
Nurre is currently working in parks on the county's east side, such as Woodland Mound and Withrow Nature Preserve. Parks on the west side were completed last year. She expects to complete the east side this year and move to the central region, wrapping up the project by the end of 2021.
Nurre works from old parks' maps. She's finding some streams no longer exist because of development or having been turned into farmland. Others can be hard to reach.
"Our parks have a lot of steep slopes and a lot of varied topography so getting out to some of them requires going up and down a lot of hills and into ravines, and there's a lot of honeysuckle, an invasive species you have to get through in order to get out to some of these. It can be a challenge."
As Nurre explores these tucked-away corners of the county's parks, she's finding hidden gems and some not-so-great surprises.
"We have some really beautiful streams that are a little bit hidden. Sometimes when I'm out looking for a specific stream I'm just struck by how beautiful they are and that they have really good substrate. On the flip side, we find a lot of streams that have been altered by farming," she says.
Garbage and other pollutants are also problems.
The results will be factored into the Great Parks master plan currently under development.