One year ago today, Mill Creek MetroParks did something it had never done in its 100-plus years of life: It closed its waterways to the public.
The move was prompted by the finding of high E. coli levels in Lake Newport after a massive fish kill there. As a precaution, MetroParks Executive Director Aaron Young opted to close lakes Newport, Glacier and Cohasset until further notice.
The lakes remained closed until this March, when they reopened with new signs cautioning park visitors that bacteria levels in the water could be elevated 24 to 48 hours after rainstorms.
That rainstorms finding is one major takeaway for the MetroParks – gleaned from a 12-week water-testing program conducted by the Mahoning County District Board of Health.While the water-testing program allowed MetroParks officials to grasp the scope of the park system’s water-pollution troubles, it is just one piece of a large, complex puzzle to clean the park district’s waterways.
It’s a puzzle that will take decades to complete.
“There’s not going to be one silver bullet that fixes the water-quality issue,” Young told The Vindicator last week. “It’s going to have to be a little bit of everything to see some success.
”An (Un)Sanitary Proposition"
The 2015 fish kill – a highly-visible incident in which dead fish could be seen floating in the water – triggered intense interest in water quality in Mill Creek MetroParks’ waterways.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency determined quickly that the fish kill resulted primarily from discharges from the city’s combined sewer overflows. The discharges dumped storm water and sewage into the MetroParks’ waterways after heavy rains caused overflows, killing fish by depleting their oxygen supply.
Sewers were first constructed in the park nearly 100 years ago, after park founder Volney Rogers lost his public battle to block their construction. He wrote:
“The idea of bringing all the sewage for about 61/4 square miles, now in the city, and as much more later perhaps from Boardman to the center of as valuable a park as our Youngstown Mill Creek park, as a sanitary proposition, is so abhorrent and so destructive to the highest benefits that the people are entitled to enjoy, that I am sure those who suggest this plan do not do so understandingly,” Rogers wrote in the Aug. 11, 1915, edition of The Youngstown Vindicator.
The 14 city combined- sewer overflows discharge into MetroParks waterways an average of 73.2 times a year, according to a report by MS Consultants Inc.
So while it happens a lot and has for almost a century, those dead fish floating in the water last year got many people’s attention.
LOWEST ON THE TOTEM POLE
The CSO discharges, experts and officials from numerous agencies agree, are just one part of the problem. Mill Creek MetroParks’ water quality is impacted by other issues from the 78-square-mile Mill Creek watershed.
The district board of health’s water-testing program helped MetroParks officials understand the problem as a watershedwide one, Young said. The final report, as presented by environmental health director Ryan Tekac, emphasized: “There is not just one contributing factor causing the problem.”
It listed CSOs, wildlife, agricultural manure, fertilizer and failing septic systems as among factors affecting the watershed.
“The testing we did was very beneficial,” Young said. “It allowed the board of health to identify some areas of the county where septics may be an issue. It proved what the EPA had been saying, which is that the watershed had some challenges.”
“Because we’re the lowest on the totem pole, everything winds up in the park,” he said, referring to the park’s position downstream.
Understanding that the MetroParks’ water-pollution woes are watershedwide, however, doesn’t absolve the park system from responsibility, Young said.
“We’re going to continue to do our part, because it’s our obligation to. But it’s not going to be the fix-all,” he said.
Specifically, the park is working with Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, the water-quality management agency for Mahoning and Trumbull counties, to inform park visitors and residents about factors that impact the Mill Creek watershed.
The MetroParks has long been addressing water-quality in its handling of capital-improvement projects, officials said.
“Anywhere where we’re doing our own capital improvements where we can address storm water, we’ve been doing that,” said Young.
As an example, he cited recent upgrades to the Lily Pond parking lot. That project, aimed at reducing the volume and velocity of storm water, replaced much of the asphalt with water-permeable pavers. It also added a bioswale and a biofiltration garden, which are landscape elements that filter runoff water before it enters the pond.
“We’re improving our existing facilities, and we’re doing that using best-management practices,” Young said.
The MetroParks also has been working for many years to eliminate septic tanks on park property, said Steve Avery, MetroParks planning & operations director.
Park workers recently stopped mowing Daffodil Meadow, Avery said. Allowed to grow unchecked, the meadow helps reduce runoff into an adjacent lake.
While those types of efforts might seem small, they add up, Young and Avery said.
What park leaders do not intend to do at this time, they said, is invest money in options they consider to be short-term fixes — such as dredging or aeration of the lakes — despite calls from some community members to do so.
“Those aren’t the answers,” Avery said.
Young also responded to the perception — as gauged by Vindicator interviews with multiple people who have been outspoken critics of the MetroParks — that the park is not prioritizing water quality now that the public spotlight has moved to other issues.
“I would argue otherwise, and you can see that in the demonstration of the capital-improvement projects we just completed,” Young said. “I think it’s important to identify that this is not going to be a quick fix.”
WHAT IT WILL TAKE
Along with the MetroParks, numerous other agencies are involved with assessing and addressing water quality in the park. In fact, much of what can be done is outside the MetroParks’ control.
One of the most significant fixes — elimination of CSO discharges into the MetroParks — is still a long way from fruition.
Per an agreement with the U.S. EPA, Youngstown is required to move forward with $146 million in upgrades to the city sewer system. One phase of that project is installation of an interceptor to keep wastewater from flowing into Mill Creek.
That $47 million part of the project is not slated to begin until July 2020, with “substantial completion” slated for 2033.“We’re following our original time frames and timelines that were part of our consent decree with the U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA,” said Youngstown Mayor John McNally. “(The plan) primarily deals first with improvements to our own wastewater plant. That’s the work that’s been going on behind the scenes for right now.
”He noted that the city is engaged on multiple fronts — such as participating in a federal program that helps communities address their water-infrastructure needs — in an attempt to make some of the necessary fixes in a more cost-effective way.
McNally also recently charged the Youngstown City Health District with testing Lake Glacier’s water quality, said city environmental health director Tara Cioffi.
The city health district will conduct a similar program to what the county health department did at Lake Newport. Over a 24-week period, which began in May, the city will test samples from three locations around the lake every other week.
“I think once we have more data, we’ll be able to see what the overall picture looks like,” Cioffi said. “We’ve found that it’s a watershed problem and there are different factors contributing to high E. coli levels, but we just want to get” a sense of Lake Glacier’s situation. She noted that the lake is in a more-urban environment than Lake Newport, and likely gets more runoff.
Another proposal to help the city upgrade its water infrastructure was introduced in the state Senate by Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd.Senate Joint Resolution 3 calls for a 10-year, $1 billion bond issue for water-infrastructure improvements in communities in the state.
Schiavoni said that while the proposal garnered bipartisan support in the Senate, Gov. John Kasich indicated to him that he would not back it. While the resolution needs only to clear the state legislature with three-fifths majorities in the House and Senate before being sent to the ballot for voters to decide, Schiavoni said it’s “difficult” to gain traction with Kasich opposing it.
Instead, local residents likely will see rate increases to cover the cost of sewer-system upgrades.
“I don’t think that’s responsible, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Schiavoni said. “We’re investing in tax cuts instead of investing in our future.”
Young said the MetroParks stands behind efforts by every group in the fray — from local townships, to the Mahoning Soil and Water Conservation District, to the county health department’s monitoring of septic systems — to address the park’s water quality.
“We’re supportive of all of that, because it’s going to take all of that,” he said.