Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Mill Creek flows from gritty reality to surprising beauty

City officials see potential on canoe trip

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The flotilla was so large that wildlife took flight.

(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        Not used to seeing people on the Mill Creek, kingfishers chattered overhead and killdeer scattered from gravel bars. Downstream, great blue herons and black-crowned night herons arose from the tree canopy.

        From Mitchell Avenue south the Mill Creek is a shallow lime-green stream that runs much of the distance in a concrete trough, under bridges and past billboards that dot Interstate 75, past an abandoned grain elevator, over low-head dams and riffling past submerged tires.

        It's a section of the Mill Creek that represents a “gritty urban realism” that Bruce Koehler can appreci ate; it is a distinctly urban stream that is considered one of 10 most endangered rivers in the country, and yet startles those who canoe it.

        On Tuesday morning, Mr. Koehler, an environmental planner with OKI Regional Council of Governments, led a flotilla of 13 canoes and two kayaks loaded with government officials, biologists, environmental activists and students on a trip 6 miles down the Mill Creek, from Mitchell Avenue to the mouth of the creek at the Ohio River near Lower Price Hill.

        They covered 6 miles of the 28-mile river that cuts through the industrial heart of the city and county.

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        “You're our first mayor on the creek,” Mr. Koehler yelled over his shoulder to Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken, who paddled in a canoe just behind.

        “The other ones didn't make it, or what?” said Mayor Luken. He laughed.

        Close to 30 people took the trip on a stream, although recreation on this river is discouraged, indeed nonexistent. The Ohio EPA, for instance, recommends no contact with the waters of the Mill Creek, because of occasional high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

        The whole point of the canoe trip Tuesday was to raise public awareness of the state of the Mill Creek, to share ideas about how to improve its quality and, most important, to show that the creek is not a lost cause.

        Mr. Koehler, who jokingly calls himself the commodore of the Mill Creek Yacht Club, has led a number of canoe trips on different sections of the Mill Creek, accompanying officials like Cincinnati Councilman Todd Portune, county Commissioner John Dowlin and U.S. Reps. Steve Chabot and Rob Portman.

        These trips have become so popular that Nancy Ellwood, executive director of the Mill Creek Watershed Council, said it's now “chic for politicians to paddle the creek.”

        Mr. Luken was joined on Tuesday by Councilmen Jim Tarbell, Pat DeWine and Paul Booth.

        “I especially want to raise the awareness of public officials, because the public thinks the Mill Creek is beyond repair, beyond redemption,” Mr. Koehler said. “Well, that's not the case. Typically, when we do go out, we see signs of life. There's reason for hope.”

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        Ms. Ellwood agrees, as do most of those familiar with and concerned about the Mill Creek.

        “I'm very optimistic,” Ms. Ellwood said. “It's getting a lot of attention now. The bottom line is getting money.”

        Dr. Michael Miller, an aquatic ecology professor at the University of Cincinnati, said it is helpful to get political attention. The creek is a travesty but it has potential. The quality of the riparian corridor can be improved.

        “Make this a greenbelt — a pleasure for both wildlife and humans,” Dr. Miller said. “It can be done.”

        Federal legislation and stricter regulations about water quality in the early 1970s helped, as did the realization in recent years of the need for more green space and reforestation along the creek. But still to be undone are decades of industrial pollution, landfill leakage, raw sewage and urban runoff caused as more and more land along the valley was paved.

        Still, there are sections of the creek that inspire awe. The stretch of creek that runs south from the Western Hills Viaductlooks almost unspoiled. Fish jump, and there are roosts of black-crowned night herons. An oak tree on the riverbank shows evidence of being gnawed pale by a beaver.

        Bill Boyd Jr., with the Izaak Walton League, dropped a line in the water and pulled in a white bass.

        “That tells a story right there,” Mr. Koehler said. “White bass can live in the Mill Creek.”

        “I've never seen this before,” said Mr. Luken, as the trip concluded. “It gives me hope. The potential is here. I saw birds and fish that I didn't think lived in these parts.”

        Mr. DeWine was likewise impressed with the amount of wildlife. “There really is a lot of potential,” he said.

        “Eye-opening,” Mr. Booth said. “It's amazing to see what you have in your own back yard.”

        In addition to working and lobbying agencies such as the Corps of Engineers, said Mr. Tarbell, there are even small things the city can accomplish, like reforestation of riverbanks through tree and shrub plantings.

        “Ten years from now I'd just like it not to be a public health threat,” Mr. Koehler said. “It will never be a completely natural stream again, but there are some nice things you can accomplish.”


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