By Nancy Allen
Years of dredging the Wabash River in Mercer and Darke counties has turned it into a fast-flowing river that rages during flood events and washes topsoil from the surrounding farmland that serves as a floodplain for the river.
Local and state officials are talking with a landowner to build a floodplain on some of his flood-prone farmland to return a portion of river to a more natural state.
The proposed floodplain project also is part of a restoration plan the Wabash River Conservancy District is seeking Ohio EPA approval for, so that the conservancy can receive an EPA permit to do maintenance work on the river. The restoration plan was submitted to the EPA's Laura Fay, an environmental scientist, last August and it remains under review.
District conservationist Jim Will of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, first spoke with Wayne Doner more than a year ago about the project. The plan involves rebuilding a part of an earthen levy along the river bank that washed away during the July 2003 flood and converting part of an adjacent farmfield owned by Doner into a wetland or floodplain.
Fay said there likely will be some EPA grant funds available in 2006 that the conservancy could apply for to do the project. Fay said she is still researching the funding possibilities for Doner before he makes any decision. Fay has been working with conservancy district members on a restoration plan that must be approved by EPA officials before the conservancy can obtain a new Ohio EPA 401 permit to do maintenance work on the river. The conservancy lost the permit when it illegally ran a bulldozer down the river's 27-mile stretch to remove sandbars in 1997. The EPA found the act illegal because the conservancy's five-year 401 EPA permit to do such work had expired and because the work had damaged the ecology of the river and its wildlife.
EPA officials in January 2000 dropped a proposed $59,238 fine against the conservancy for the bulldozing. In return, the conservancy was told to come up with a restoration plan to fix the damage done to the river by planting trees and ground cover along the banks.
Fay said the floodplain project is one part of the restoration plan designed to slow the river down and let sediment settle out on the land, instead of getting into the river. Agricultural runoff from farmland is the main contributor of poor water quality in the river, EPA documents show.
"The environmental problem from the EPA's point of view is that the river has been dredged so that it is so deep and when there is a flood event, there is nowhere for the water to go and it can't get up out of its banks," Fay said. "Therefore then it is a very strong, errosive force of water and it gets more sediment in the water than the river can handle."
Though the completed restoration plan should include projects all along the river, the proposed project on Doner's land would be a good starting point, Fay said.
The site of the proposed floodplain project is where the conservancy years ago removed an oxbow, or bend, in the river, where it naturally flooded. It also is located just upstream from where Beaver Creek empties into the Wabash.
"It causes such a pressure during flood events that some of the water from Beaver Creek ends up flowing back upstream the Wabash River," Fay said. "The water is just going wherever it can, looking for the path of least resistance. That place just happens to be at Mr. Doner's."
The 2003 flood blew out a 200-foot-section of an earthen levee on the river where it joins Beaver Creek. The blowout caused sand, gravel and tree debris to wash 600 feet into Doner's field, and destroyed roughly 70 acres of Doner's soybean crop. Doner indicated that portion of his field routinely floods, causing him to lose crops in that area, Fay said.
The floodplain project likely would involve reconstructing a new earthen levee much further away from the river bank so it has a place to flood. The levee would then protect the farmland outside that area from flooding, she said.
The conservancy district, created in 1958, assesses property owners along the river a fee to pay for work on the river designed to control agricultural and residential flooding in the Cranberry Prairie and Fort Recovery areas.