Although there are still abuses occurring today, it's "slightly better," according to Bruce Koehler.
"The biggest thing to back that up is they put a treatment plant for the sanitary sewer overflow (site number) 700, which was puking 64 million gallons a year of untreated sewage," he says. "It was by far the worst violator of the Mill Creek. The fact that that's been addressed tells me that the Mill Creek is better."
Koehler, who is senior environmental planner for the OKI Regional Council of Governments, is a longtime volunteer with the Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities. He started the Yacht Club in the early 1980s, when the group started talking about what to do to improve the contaminated creek.
"I thought, 'What the hell are we doing sitting here at this board room table talking about something that's just three miles away and we never go down there?' " Koehler says. "Just sort of talking up in the stratosphere of abstraction, so I found a buddy and we canoed the Mill Creek and started seeing what it was really like."
Beavers and barrels
Now the commodore takes local politicians, dignitaries, environmentalists and others on canoe trips along the creek. In some sections, passengers will see heron, beaver and other animals amid lush greenery. Other areas aren't so great.
That is what the council is trying to address with its community outreach and education programs.
"What do we want to do with the Mill Creek?" asks Tara Maddock, program director for the Watershed Council. "What do we want it to look like? Is it something we want to cover up and treat as a conveyance sewer? Or is it something we want to have more pride in?
"Those are kind of lofty goals or long-term visions for it, but it really matters in a day-to-day sense for people who are losing their back yards to flooding, for those cities that are facing flooding or the stream out of its banks. Those are very practical, hard-core dollars-and-cents issues that need to be addressed."
Striking a balance between environmental and economic issues for governmental agencies and businesses is what Maddock is trying to do. With new EPA regulations holding smaller municipalities accountable for the water quality in their area, towns such as Reading and Evendale as well as counties and townships are being forced to look for ways to be more environmentally responsible about the bodies of water within their borders.
Topics like stormwater run off and the water quality in the Mill Creek aren't exactly sexy and are not typically priorities for most business owners, unless their parking lot is flooding or the sewer in their basement is backing up because the creek is flooding and the water has no place to go. Making people understand the importance of this water quality and quantity is what Maddock does in terms people can understand.
The city of Reading is working with the council to develop the programs necessary to comply with EPA regulation. One activity in the works is executing a community outreach campaign to share suggestions and information about how to do something simple like building a rain garden (www.millcreekwatershed.org) or sweep up debris and dispose of it properly. Another is developing a green certification for businesses that implement simple but effective environmental practices.
"Part of our education and outreach focus is to get the average homeowner or business owner to recognize that what they do on their lot or property is connected to the larger watershed," Maddock says. "When you get a rainstorm, that first flush of that runoff carries a lot of pollutant with it off the rooftops, the driveways, the roadways, and it has automobile byproducts -- rubber, grease, gas, oil, antifreeze, fertilizers, pesticides from your lawn."
Still too abstract?
"Use old fashioned-technology -- rain barrels to hold water and using it for watering your garden," she says. "Wash your car on your lawn, not in the street, because that water goes straight into the storm drain, straight into the Mill Creek, straight into the Ohio (River) so you get this direct flush of pollutants off the surface."
Making the tough decisions about what efforts ought to be selected and paying for them is the hard part.
"Cost versus treating the problem -- what can be done given a limited or constrained budget?" Maddock says.
She suggests building baseball fields in flood plains so the water has someplace to go other than backyards. But there is no simple or comprehensive solution.
"Within the constraints of a highly developed urban stream, we're not going to make it look like the Little Miami," she cautions.
This urban stream is a fixture in many communities, and what it looks like in those communities varies. Describing the section of the creek that leads past the Hamilton County Fairgrounds as "almost natural" with "old time meanders," Koehler chuckles before he continues.
"The Mill Creek's so full of ironies," he says. "Just before you get to Caldwell Park, left bank, there's this industrial dump coming right down to the water, with plastic hanging like a haunted house and 50-gallon industrial drums rusting away. You can see the best and worst of the Mill Creek in a 10-yard stretch. It's so bizarre."
Canoeing the bizarre creek with other Yacht Club members is something that makes Koehler believes it's possible to improve the stream.
"It's given us hope, but it's also given us a hellishly long to-do list," he says. "It does tell me it can never go back to what it was and it would be a mistake to treat it like a scenic river wannabe. So let's just accept it as the bizarre place that it is." ©Mike Miller takes a break while canoeing on one of the less obviously polluted stretches of the Mill Creek, a long-troubled urban stream.
Do they know what they're getting into? Kids hang out near the Mill Creek.