Dr. Lauren Kinsman-Costello uses a hand-held sensor to take measurements in the waters of Hancock Parks' Oakwoods Nature Preserve Wetlands Restoration Project in Findlay.
Dr. Lauren Kinsman-Costello uses a hand-held sensor to take measurements in the waters of Hancock Parks' Oakwoods Nature Preserve Wetlands Restoration Project in Findlay.
OHIO/PUTNAM COUNTY — Ohio Governor Mike DeWine unveiled H2Ohio on November 14, 2019, as a comprehensive, data-driven water quality plan to reduce harmful algal blooms, improve wastewater infrastructure, and prevent lead contamination.

The program opened big, with the Ohio Department of Agriculture offering significant incentives to farmers in the Lake Erie Watershed. Multiple events in the region — including one at Leipsic’s Fogle Community Center in January of last year — drew hundreds of farmers. Then came the pandemic and, while not abandoned, concerted efforts to conserve the vast resources of Lake Erie were, by necessity, back-burnered.

Now, as the state and the nation begin to make headway against the virus, water quality is receiving renewed attention and resources.

In her office in the basement of the Putnam County Health Department, Brandi Schroeder, director of Environmental Public Health, explained her department’s role in defending the lake and the watershed.

“In 2015, the health department began overseeing the program,” Schroeder said, referencing oversight of residential wastewater systems — septic tanks. “2015 was a big year. In 2015 we got brand new state rules, we began the Water Pollution Control Loan fund here, and we had the 6119 (a failed effort to create a county-wide, centralized wastewater district). Remember that?”

In 2018, the health department was tasked with assuring county septic systems were sound. As part of a ten-year Operations and Management program, the department’s sanitarians evaluating each and every system in the county, either through direct inspection.

Most of those actions were part of a bigger effort to protect Lake Erie and its watershed, to reduce the likelihood of harmful algal blooms.

“It all goes back to the Clean Water Act,” Schroeder said. “It’s federal funding that is passed through the State. Ohio is one of the unique states in which our EPA allocates funding for household systems. Normally they fund centralized systems. But Ohio actually provides it for household systems, which is also a contributor to pollution in waterways.”

That concern over the effect failed and failing residential septic systems have on waterways is part of an ongoing larger study, a portion of which played out regionally, in a wetland area maintained by Hancock Parks in Hancock County.

On March 21, 27 scientists representing six Ohio universities gathered at Hancock Park District’s Oakwoods Nature Preserve (ONP) to develop a monitoring program for all of the wetlands implemented by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) as part of the H2Ohio initiative. The group is putting expertise and sampling equipment to the test at the 48 sites currently related to the H2Ohio initiative, all with the common goal of discovering just how effective wetlands are at intercepting nutrient-laden surface water in the Lake Erie Watershed.

Eric Saas, H2Ohio program manager with ODNR, was in the thick of the wader-wearing throng. “This is the first time that we’ve gotten these researchers together in person,” he said, citing previous weekly Zoom calls as precedent.

The ONP Wetlands Restoration Project, funded in 2020 during Phase 1 of H2Ohio, includes a number of different habitats that support studies for the educational community. The east portion of the project sits in an agricultural field that is being converted into a number of shallow wetlands that may be completely dry for most of the summer and fall. These vernal (spring) pools serve as essential breeding habitat for certain species of wildlife, including amphibians that are an important food source for small carnivores as well as large game species. Wetlands in the west project will hold water most of the year as adjacent Aurand Run feeds water into the pools during overflow events.

“That’s why we chose this site,” explains Dr. Robert Midden, Adjunct Research Professor at Bowling Green State University. “We’ve got the opportunity to do most of the types of sampling that we need to do.”

With testing ongoing, the results of these explorations aren’t immediately available. Even so, efforts to mitigate the potential effects of small-scale wastewater systems on the lake and the watershed are already in place. Funding provided by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for the rehabilitation of septic systems has been available to county residents for over five years. Now, there’s a new source of assistance — hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of assistance.

“We have H2Ohio money this year,” Schroeder said. “We have about $350,000 to use in 2021. We have to use that money by the end of November for repair and replacement.”

The monies are available based on income, though, Schroeder said, even those earning at 300% of the established poverty level — just over $25,000 for a family of four — are eligible.

“A household of one to four can make $25,750 for 100%, $51,500 for 85% qualification, and then $77,250 and the program will fund 50% of the installation,” Schroeder said. “It increases with each additional person in the household, as well. It is a nice feature to that program. It’s not just looking at poverty level, but extending it from there, so we can help many more people.”

Schroeder estimated, to date, the program has paid out over $500,000 to county residents whose systems were in need of repair or replacement.

“There were a couple counties that really took note of it early on in this area, and we were one of them,” Schroeder said. “We have been able to help more individuals, and have had the program longer. That’s been a benefit to our homeowners.”