- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Dan Wire is more than aware of the public perception of the rivers that flow through Fort Wayne.

He’s heard it all as executive director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance: The water is brown and it’s unsafe to swim in it.

Brown rivers and safe waterways are two major issues to be addressed this week at the 2015 River Summit.

“We want to engage the public in truly understanding everything about their rivers,” Wire told The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1MZumgZ ).

The summit, the first in four years and sponsored by the Alliance, will run Wednesday and Thursday at Grand Wayne Center downtown and Saturday on the rivers.

The short answer why the water is brown is that sediment has accumulated in it, the result of the area having lost 85 percent of its wetlands, Wire said - similar to what has happened across the nation.

And yes, the rivers are safe to fish, canoe, kayak and sometimes swim, allowing “full body contact” - barring occasional downpours that can render the rivers temporarily polluted.

There is also a realization that waterways are an “economic driver.”

“What communities are realizing is that if they have quality of life or quality of place, then they will get that young creative class, those millennial workers. You know what those young people look for first? What’s the cool place to live? Then they’ll look for a job,” Wire said.

Fort Wayne, deep into a downtown riverfront project, is not the only city in the area to look at its waterways as an economic plus, Wire said.

Bluffton along the Wabash; Decatur along the St. Marys; Auburn with a completed Blue Ways Trail study along the Cedar Creek that flows into the St. Joseph River; and Defiance, Ohio, on the Maumee are all planning to use their waterways to attract people and business, he said.

While a loss of wetlands has turned the nation’s rivers brown, phosphorus fertilizer used in agricultural, residential and commercial applications collects in slow-moving rivers and lakes and prompts overgrowth and decomposition of plant life, which then depletes the rivers of much-needed oxygen that fish thrive on.

The problem culminated spectacularly late last August when 3-foot deep toxic algae blooms covered a portion of Lake Erie, preventing collection of potable water for 500,000 residents in Toledo, Ohio, for 2½ days. The Maumee River, originating at the headwaters of the St. Joseph and St. Marys rivers in Fort Wayne, is the single biggest contributor to the Great Lakes system.

But if residents in Indiana think algae blooms in Ohio are not their concern, they can look to their own lakes and rivers. No one knows that like fly fisherman Rex Lengacher, president of Three Rivers Fly Fishers, whose home sits on the St. Joseph River in Leo-Cedarville.

Considered the cleanest river by fishermen such as Lengacher and providing Fort Wayne’s drinking water, the St. Joe still gets its share of phosphorus runoff.

At Lengacher’s home, where he once moored his pontoon boat, the milfoil and lily pads have multiplied to the extent that he can’t navigate his own channel anymore, he said.

The situation started about seven years ago when his municipality installed a storm sewer that directs runoff from lawns and streets into the channel from at least three housing subdivisions upstream, Lengacher said. Before, the runoff was more dispersed, he said.

“That storm drain dumps right in the end of my channel,” Lengacher. “Those seeds have grown now. The only way to get rid of them is to fight them with more chemicals.”

Instead, Lengacher moved his pontoon boat over a mile downstream to a relative’s place. He’d still choose the St. Joe River - cleaned up because of new sanitary systems put into place in the 1970s - over the St. Marys or the Maumee. But he remembers swimming in the St. Joe before those systems were put into place.

“If you were in the river for a half an hour, it would stain your fingernails and turn them yellow and it wouldn’t wash off. Now you can swim all afternoon,” Lengacher said.

St. Marys, originating at Grand Lake St. Marys in St. Marys, Ohio, is not only loaded with agricultural runoff, but gets hit with large amounts of waste runoff from livestock production. Industry adds its share of pollution as it flows through New Haven and Fort Wayne, environmental officials say.

“None of us fish in St. Marys,” Lengacher said.

But Wire said any of the city’s rivers is fishable at any time.

“The question then comes, are you going to eat the fish out of the river, and a lot of people do. … The DNR, they have what’s called a fish consumption advisory. It will tell you which river and which fish, what you can eat and how often.”

Wire also points to a city of Fort Wayne sewer discharge 18-year plan, now in its eighth year, designed to not only meet federal standards but also reduce the number of overflow discharges into the river that render the water unfit for activity.

Much of the combined sewer system that handles both sewage and runoff overflows about 75 times a year has been reworked to send most of the sewage to the city filtration plant when runoff ends up in the river during “goose drownders,” Wire said.

“We’re reducing sewer discharge, but we are getting more floatables.” he said.

Floatables are things such as motor oil, cigarette butts, and plastic cups that will eventually be caught in what is now experimental end-of-pipe treatment, he added.

Farmers have been blamed for much of the phosphorus overload in the rivers, but they’ve done much to lessen fertilizer amounts through conservation cropping, paid for in part by EPA grants, Wire and other environmental officials say.

While agricultural efforts are growing - such as installing filtration devices and adding gypsum to the soil to bind with the phosphorus and keep it in the ground - getting the rivers cleaned up will have to be a community affair, they also say.

“If you want information on the more technical aspects of the river environment, attend the conference,” said Matt Jones, of the Allen County Partnership for Water Quality and one of the summit’s presenters. “If you want to learn about what you can do on or around the rivers, attend the conference.”

“We’ve turned our backs on our rivers for too long,” Wire said. “It’s time to turn around and see what we have, and it’s good.”

___

Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net

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