Disco Wasn't the Only Bad Thing about the 70s
After a career sampling macroinvertebrates in Ohio streams and rivers for MBI and Ohio EPA that began in 1974, I realize it’s important to have perspective on historical conditions. With that in mind, I’ve recalled some memorable field observations from years past to illustrate how far we’ve come in restoring Ohio streams. Of course, the job is not complete, but a tremendous amount has been accomplished. Warning: Gross Descriptions Ahead!
Before industrial pre-treatment was required, we visited the Lancaster sewage treatment plant in the early 1970s to monitor its discharge to the Hocking River. The operator was bemoaning their effluent quality that was only a shade better than raw sewage. He said the major cause was slugs of toxic industrial effluents that periodically hit the plant and wiped out the bacteria in their circular trickling filters, a must for efficient waste treatment. A few years later, we were sampling a short distance downstream and, from the bridge, noticed odd reddish patches about 3 sq. ft. in size, lining the shallow margins. “What is that? Iron floc?” we said as we tried to identify the material. It wasn’t until we waded in and got closer, we realized the patches were actually massive numbers (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of Tubifex tubifex sludge worms (Order Oligochaeta), thriving in the mats of sewage solids that lined the river like a black bathtub ring. The worms contain hemoglobin and burrow into the substrate, then extend their posterior ends into the water column and vigorously wave their bodies to utilize the available dissolved oxygen. As a result, they tolerate severe organic enrichment and low oxygen levels. Fortunately, I have not seen this phenomenon again in decades, and that stretch of the Hocking has gone from very poor and essentially “dead” to fully attaining biological standards. The upper Hocking below Lancaster is now a popular canoeing reach.
Today, Scioto River fish and macroinvertebrate communities are in good, even exceptional condition south of Columbus but that was not always the case. Back in the day, overloading of the Columbus sewer system meant treatment plants like Columbus Southerly could not handle excessive in-flows and sewage meant for treatment was simply “by-passed” and discharged to the river. This resulted in some interesting sights. On a boat trip in the late 1970s, we passed a large, downed tree submerged in the river that looked like it had been decorated for Christmas. As we got closer, we realized the “ornaments” waving lazily back and forth in the current, were condoms, bypassed from the plant and caught on nearly every obstruction downstream. Actually, personal hygiene items were routinely found below sewage works back then, not just in Columbus, but also throughout the state. In the days before GPS and without up to date maps, a discharge could sometimes be accurately located by the unique guild of debris found downstream. For the same reason, it wasn’t unusual to come across healthy tomato plants, the seeds of which can pass through the digestive system, growing along stream banks below municipalities.
“Balloons” of the more common variety were encountered while sampling around the City of Ashland treatment plant. Standing next to the discharge, it suddenly took on a rainbow appearance as balloons of every color started pouring from the pipe. Turns out there was a latex factory in town that apparently disposed by their product down the sewer. On the other hand, maybe Pennywise was in town.
Severe substrate contamination below the old Baker Woods wood treatment property in Marion resulted in numerous ruined field shirts and chest waders whenever sampling was conducted in the Little Scioto River. The company had treated wood and railroad ties with creosote since the 19th century, contaminating the grounds and discharging to the stream. As a result, sinking into the soft-bottomed river meant releasing pools of foul-smelling oil with each step and emerging, stained black and glistening, when you wrestled yourself back to shore. Portions of the channel have since been remediated, but sampling the Little Scioto near Marion usually meant you drew the short straw.
One of the worst types of impacts to urban streams are from Combined Sewer Overflows or “CSOs” that collect both storm water and sanitary sewage, and discharge directly to streams when heavy rains overwhelm capacity. Decades ago, sections of the Cleveland sewer system were so under-sized, the sewers didn’t need rainfall to exceed capacity, they simply overflowed constantly, even at low flow. To say the aesthetics below these “dry weather overflows” were “very poor” was an understatement. In Big Creek below the Cleveland Zoo, we suddenly came across a “sewer salad” as every other dipnet came up with rotting chunks of raw vegetables, as if washed from the bottom of a pen. At the mouth of Mill Creek, the stream channel cut into an abandoned landfill. The exposed stream bank was a mass of hanging trash and sheets of industrial plastic that would dislodge after heavy rains (no wonder we lost so many samplers downstream). The head of our Surface Water group in Twinsburg started when the Agency began in 1973 and he used to describe the confluence of Big Creek and the Cuyahoga River in almost apocalyptic terms. The combination of discharges from sewers and metals smelters, oil sheens, and even blood and offal from a slaughterhouse, turned the river every unnatural color of the rainbow. The confluence is only about a mile upstream from the N&SS railroad bridge, the site of the infamous, 1968 Cuyahoga River fire, often credited with the formation of the EPA.
My first visit to the Cuyahoga River was in 1974 at our long-term monitoring site in Independence. The location was upstream from Cleveland but downstream from Akron, the "Rubber Capitol of the World", and it was still degraded almost 30 miles downstream. Heading out to pick up our samplers, we waded across a wide expanse of shallow bedrock and I kept thinking, “What is all that crunching? It feels like I am walking on Rice Krispies.” Turns out, the entire river bottom was "carpeted" with Physella, a pollution tolerant, lung-breathing snail reflecting severe impairment. At the time, impacts to the Cuyahoga were considered so intractable and severe, it was deemed incapable of meeting normal water quality standards and its use designation was downgraded. Over a decade later, and after dozens of man-years spent in court trying to disprove that contention, the Cuyahoga was upgraded to warmwater habitat (WWH). Today, virtually the entire river from Akron to Cleveland is in Full attainment for fish and bugs. A pretty amazing recovery and fortunately, a long way from the days when it was crunchy, colorful, and combustible.
So sometimes looking back can be important for more than just winning at Trivial Pursuit. I am not alone in that respect as so many of the staff at MBI, and my former co-workers at Ohio EPA, date their environmental experiences back to those “bad old days”. Most importantly, in addition to being entertaining storytellers, they are able to tap that broad range of knowledge when evaluating modern day problems and conducting stream quality assessments. Thanks for the memories.