News: Paddling the Urban Frontier

Canoe trip reveals that not all is lost on Mill Creek

May 4, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Doug Trapp

Canoers explore Mill Creek at a spot straddling Reading and Lockland

Mill Creek has been many things: a tributary, a sewer, a dump, a playground and an urban legend, to name a few.

But a scenic waterway with hiking trails? A natural resource treasured by citizens?

If a coalition of local environmentalists, government employees and elected officials get their way, Mill Creek could eventually become both of those things.

Bruce Koehler, an environmental planner with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), has led 24 canoe trips down the creek during the last few years, giving a close-up look at what was labeled the most-endangered North American urban waterway in 1997 by the national conservation group American Rivers.

Koehler jokingly refers to the canoeing venture as the "Mill Creek Yacht Club," of which he is the "commodore," but the serious mission is to show people that the creek isn't a lost cause — as many Cincinnatians might assume — and that there's still life left in it and potential for more. U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, and County Commissioner John Dowlin are just a few of the many dozens of yacht club veterans. The most recent expedition was launched on April 25.

As a child growing up in Reading, I saw the nearby Mill Creek as a source of mystery and entertainment. Why did it emit that extra-strong, foul, dank creek odor?

Why were there sometimes swirls of faint yellow or orange mixed into the creek's dark green base? What lined the banks upstream or downstream, which couldn't be reached without soaking your sneakers?

My parents never had to tell me to stay out of Mill Creek — only the foolish let the creek water touch their skin. God help anyone who swallowed it or let it reach an eye.

Still, once in a rare while, a daredevil would acquire an inner tube or some flimsy wood and explore the creek. (I didn't realize until I was older that it emptied into the Ohio River). As far as I can recall, no one made it very far without getting a stinky soaking.

At other times, kids skipped rocks in the water or explored the banks. One kid I didn't know, who was maybe 10 or 11 years old, had an unfortunate encounter with a crumbled pile of reinforced concrete lining the creek's banks near Vorhees Park in Reading. At first I couldn't see what was going on beyond the ambulances and fire trucks near the banks. Eventually, rescuers carefully lifted the boy from the rocks — that is, after they had bandaged his forearm and cut off the section of steel rod on which he impaled it.

No warning could have been more persuasive than the sight of that boy, with his pained expression, white-bandaged forearm and a foot-long rusty steel rod sticking out of it.

So it was with a little trepidation that I joined the yacht club on April 25 behind the General Electric plant in Evendale for a trip that would end 31/2 miles later near Galbraith Road at the southern tip of Reading.

The trip's press release detailed Mill Creek's hazards, mainly an excess of fecal coliform bacteria, especially after strong storms that activate the sewer overflows into the creek. Coliform bacteria aid digestion in many animals, including humans, and reach the creek by way of animal waste. Outside of the body, however, the bacteria are capable of spreading hepatitis A, for example, although the odds are against it.

Still, anyone with a cut or sore was taking a risk in the water, according to the press release. On the positive side, Koehler hasn't suffered a winter cold since he began leading these trips a couple of years ago. He figures the creek toughened his immune system.

After having a couple of donuts, donning waterproof hip waders (good decision), not applying sunscreen (bad decision) and pocketing a pair of thick yellow latex gloves, I partnered with Pat Karney, director of the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), on his second Mill Creek trip. I sat in front, serving as paddler, while Karney steered.

Karney and I didn't have much trouble navigating the creek, which ranged in depth from several inches to a few feet or more. A strong storm a few days before the trip raised the creek by a few inches — just enough to get through a few tight spots. On previous trips, participants had to get out and drag their canoes several times.

Most of the 26 participants were also in canoes, except for U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, who owns his own kayak, plus two other kayakers. Together they scouted drop-offs and tights spots in the creek because kayaks require much less water to float. We discovered a key to not getting our canoe stuck: Go forth, after other people have tested the routes.

The trip revealed a mix of the natural and unnatural. We saw several iron-lidded combined sewer overflows — a decades old system that releases waste into the creek instead of allowing it to back up into residential sewage systems. They need to be replaced, but MSD can afford to do only a few of them each year. There were also a few tires, a shopping cart, some clothes and various other debris.

A concrete plant, already warned for discharging water with high pH levels — which kills anything in the water and can burn skin — was responsible for another flow of more high-pH water, this time a level of 12 on a scale of 1 to 14. A pH level of 9 is the maximum allowed by environmental law, and 12 is equal to 1,000 times the density of level 9, according to Michael C. Miller, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati who was on the trip. But the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can't order the concrete company to stop the discharge, Miller said — it can only send warning letters and negotiate.

On the natural side, I saw a fish jump, what looked like a small crawfish darting through the water and many creek sections seemingly undisturbed by humans or pollutants. There was even a full-sized frog sitting on a bank.

"That's a first," said Nancy Ellwood, executive director of the Mill Creek Watershed Council, which coordinates local governments on Mill Creek projects. On a previous trip further downstream, Ellwood saw a falcon hunt a duck.

"The creek has a lot of character," Ellwood said. "It's full of surprises."

Two of them were fishing in the creek near the end of our trip. The two young men, with one pole between them, said they'd caught blue gill, catfish, large-mouthed bass and other fish over the last year or two. After being asked, they said the fish they caught didn't have any lesions or other abnormalities. Still, they didn't take any chances.

"We don't eat them," said the one who held the pole.

The trip was also a bit of a brainstorming session. Someone asked Karney about installing "fish ladders" in the creek, which would allow fish to migrate beyond the pipes and concrete that create small falls and drop-offs on a regular basis. Karney asked for a sketch.

Bank erosion is a growing problem along Mill Creek. In an effort to fortify their parts of the creek bank, a few property owners have been dumping concrete and other material into the creek. Unfortunately, this forces the water to flow more quickly, eroding the opposite bank. At one point near Galbraith Road, the bank is now only a few feet from an electricity tower.

Portman, known more for backing business than environmental causes, is joining Chabot in supporting a $34.5 million request in the 2001 federal budget to reduce the number of combined sewer overflows on Mill Creek, among other creek restoration projects. There's also a separate $1.4 million request, half of which would fund natural flood control projects in the Evendale area.

"People don't realize this is a great regional asset," Portman said. "And it's right in the middle of the city."

Portman wasn't sure how the budget request would fare this year.

"It's going to be a tough year budget-wise," he said. "I don't know that we'll get all of it this year, but I think we'll get some of it. ... It's tough to get funding for anything these days."

Portman would like to see Mill Creek become as well-used by canoers and hikers as the Little Miami is on the east side. Unfortunately, Mill Creek-related work doesn't get much attention unless it's raining or flooding, Ellwood said.

"That's why it's so great today to show Mill Creek in a non-threatening situation," she said. "It looks a whole lot different from down there than it does from up top."

Before the trip began, the GE Fund, a charitable arm of General Electric, announced a $25,000 grant for the Mill Creek Restoration Project — a non-profit group founded in 1994 to improve the creek. The money is designated for creating a wetland habitat along the creek and an environmental education project for area high school students.

The hardest part of the trip was getting out of the creek. After reaching Galbraith Road, participants had to drag their canoes up a steep, rocky, weedy bank to a car dealer's parking lot.

After doing just that, Thomas Winston, district chief of the Ohio EPA's Southwest District office in Dayton, mentioned that he's been speaking to civic groups about Mill Creek for years. Older residents are consistently the most enthusiastic about the creek, because they remember fishing or wading in it or sitting on its banks watching the water flow by.

"There's a lot of potential (for the creek)," Winston said. "At some point in time, the community is going to have to come to grips with this waterway." ©