Pymatuning/Shenango Watershed: What starts in Ohio pollutes Pennsylvania

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CORTLAND, Ohio – Pymatuning Creek headwaters in the wetlands of Ashtabula County and runs southeast for 70 miles through eastern Trumbull County, passing through Hubbard, and eventually emptying into the Shenango River reservoir just across the Pennsylvania line.

As waterways go, it has never been been a major artery. Except for some metals, chlorine and industrial waste that enter the creek at Hubbard, its environmental problems have come primarily from agricultural use and runoff.

The towns that populate its banks are small and rural. Yankee Lake is its only recreational lake.

From the Ohio perspective, the creek and its small tributaries are a blip on the scale of Ohio watershed pollution problems.

An aggressive Trumbull Soil and Water Conservation District education program has turned many of the farmers along its banks into ardent environmentalists and cooperators.

Doesn’t stop. The problem with that geopolitical perspective, of considering only Ohio solutions for Ohio problems, is that state lines are not drawn to conform to water drainage. And in this case, Ohio’s drainage became Pennsylvania’s problem. Water, and whatever had flowed into it, could not be stopped at the state line.

Pymatuning Creek, as it flows into Shenango Reservoir, is a large contributor to the Shenango watershed, a 682,000-acre drainage area. The Shenango River flows south out of the reservoir through three Pennsylvania counties before it joins the Mahoning River south of New Castle to form the Beaver River.

Ashtabula County’s agricultural runoff, Trumbull County’s degrading septic tanks and Hubbard’s stormsewer runoffs, are carried through Shenango Lake, down the Shenango River, into the Beaver, the Ohio, the Mississippi, and finally end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Pennsylvania, the Shenango originates in Crawford County, and runs through Mercer and Lawrence counties.

Create partnership. It took eight years and a concerted effort to bring five counties, two states, and the interested federal agencies together to form the Penn-Ohio Watershed Association that could begin to understand the watershed as a whole.

Last January, with the Trumbull SWCD as the lead agency, the association received the nation’s first watershed improvement grant, a $60,000 Ohio EPA clean water grant, to be supplemented with $43,000 in local matching funds, to prepare a 10-year water action plan for the entire 1,000 square mile watershed.

The plan’s emphasis is to identify and correct nonsource point pollution that comes from agricultural uses, bank degradation and riparian buffer destruction, municipal wastewater treatment, storm sewer runoff.

The quality of the water at two sampling sites – on Pymatuning Creek just above Hubbard and on the Little Neshannock Creek above New Wilmington on the Mercer-Lawrence county line – is fairly good, said Amy Reeher, watershed coordinator for the Trumbull County SWCD and project director. She has been testing pH regularly, and it continues to fall within normal ranges.

Each adds share. But each tributary adds its share of organic matter, silt, pathogens, metals, and municipal wastewater. There is also some seepage from abandoned mine drainage. When it gets to the Shenango, it is added to the industrial wastes that make the lower river heavily polluted.

The action plan will look at each of these problems.

After meeting with citizens in each of the five Pennsylvania and Ohio counties, and soliciting the priorities of each of the five county conservation agencies, that watershed plan is now ready for public comment.

“We want to give everyone a chance to look at it and make sure this is really what they want us to do,” Reeher said.

Septic systems. At an initial round of county forums, the public identified failing septic systems and the need for permits, enforcement, and affordable solutions, as well as more public funding, as a large concern.

The problem is probably most visible in Trumbull County, Reeher said, but it exists in other parts of the watershed as well.

Since she does not have good statistics for the Pennsylvania counties, she uses Trumbull County to illustrate the dimension of the hazard.

There are more than 20,000 family septic systems in Trumbull County, and at least 6,000 in the watershed area. In Hartford Township, for example, she said, the 1990 census listed 757 septic systems and only 10 residences hooked up to a public sewer system.

In the more urban area of Hubbard, census data show 3,668 septic systems, and only 2,172 residences on public sewer.

This area has very little land that is suitable for septic waste disposal, she added. The only land that is loose and sandy enough is in very narrow bands along the creek banks.

“Many of the people who have the systems are aware that they are failing,” Reeher said. “But they don’t have the financial resources to replace them.”

She is pursuing grants to assess the problem and figure out what needs to be done and how it can be fixed.

She has applied for an Ohio EPA grant that would provide some cost-sharing funds for septic pumping and repair. But that grant application is on hold, and will not be reviewed until next spring.

Other issues. Other watershed problems mentioned at public meetings were litter and private dumping, erosion and sedimentation, urban sprawl, stormwater runoff, habitat issues, and logging impacts.

From these, a number of priorities were identified.

The top priority from an administrative perspective is to create a private citizen-led watershed association that can take the lead in directing the watershed improvement efforts.

This is an immediate priority, but Reeher said it will take a number of years to establish this kind of association and to develop long-term funding.

Information needed. Watershed education programs were also identified as a top priority.

On top of that list is reestablishing a watershed newsletter previously published by the Trumbull SWCD.

In the area of research, finding funding for septic system failures and remedies will be the first priority.

After that, Reeher said mapping riparian corridors and conservation and restoration areas has been identified as a priority.

Streambank easement outreach efforts is also a moderate priority, as is the facilitation of the activities for volunteers and conservation groups to assist in watershed inventory, river bank clean-up, and stream bank restoration.

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