Not just for the birds: Mill Creek's restoration pays off economically
POSTED: 8:00 AM, Oct 30, 2017
SHARONVILLE, Ohio -- The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce gave its blessing to treating the Mill Creek like an open sewer in 1914, declaring it the martyr of progress, according to the Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities.
And industry obliged, dumping untreated sewage and toxins into the previously bucolic stream, and even shifting portions of the stream into concrete channels.
The story of undoing more than a century of damage has been well told, including many heartening reports of improving water quality, wildlife returning and flash flooding being reduced.
Perhaps because of the damage that blind capitalism did to the creek, less attention has been paid to the economic benefits associated from transforming blighted stretches into attractions.
“I think the two are intertwined,” said Dave Schmitt, executive director of Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities and Groundwork Cincinnati. “If you are improving the stream and improving the watershed, it provides economic opportunities.”
State and federal environmental agencies, along with local governments and volunteers, have invested millions of dollars into projects in the last 20 years that have restored large sections of the creek.
Invasive plants have been removed and replaced with native vegetation, which has helped control flash flooding during heavy rainfall and also helped native fish, insects and birds make a comeback.
In October, the Mill Creek Yacht Club and its guests, the Buckeye United Fly Fisherman, caught 19 fish in a couple of hours, mostly catfish and striped, smallmouth and largemouth bass, Schmitt said.
"The most recent water quality conducted by (Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati) shows water quality on a daily basis is better than the Little Miami’s,” Schmitt said, noting it deteriorates when combined sewer and stormwater drains overflow in storms. He added that fish and other water life have doubled in 10 years.
But the effects of restoration are starting to extend beyond the Mill Creek itself.
Ed Loyd, a REDI Cincinnati economic development group official, said turnarounds such as the Mill Creek have been a recruiting tool.
“As we market the Greater Cincinnati region, a huge component for what attracts and helps businesses to grow here is the preservation of our parks, our arts,” he said.
Mill Creek’s turnaround from one of the most polluted rivers in the country to an attraction on some stretches “really shows how resilient and creative we can be,” Loyd said.
Here are a few examples of the economic boost Mill Creek’s revival has provided:
Story and photos by Bob Driehaus
Twin Creek Preserve, Sharonville:
What had been a weed-strewn vacant field has been transformed into a bona fide wetland through a $2 million collaboration involving Sharonville, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Cincinnati, the Ohio EPA and the Mill Creek council, among others.
Now, the 30-acre site includes a half-mile walking trail and more than 10,000 native trees and shrubs planted. No one would mistake the preserve for a pristine refuge, with the ever-present din of Interstate 275 and industrial warehouses within site.
But within its borders, the preserve is pastoral and informative, with several permanent signs that describe wildlife and efforts to reshape the Mill Creek and East Fork of the creek and, most significantly, restore a wetland in between the two.
Sharonville Economic Development Director Chris Xeil Lyons said a happy byproduct of the environmental restoration was shrinking the official flood plain. As a result, Cincinnati Sub-Zero was able to affordably expand its operations there, creating 225 new jobs through an $8 million investment.
"It actually helped with some of the flood control so that we were able to shrink the flood plain," Lyons said.
Hartwell Golf Course
Burke Byer, the fourth-generation owner of Byer Steel in Cincinnati, smiles wondering what his grandfather was thinking when he purchased nearly a mile-long stretch of Mill Creek frontage, much of which was a construction landfill, all of which was an eyesore.
But when he joined the family business in 2004, he wanted to be part of the Mill Creek's turnaround.
I knew that the mill creek was not a nice clean creek. Live in Lebanon up on a farm and know the different
"I looked around and asked what’s the best thing I could do for the long haul. In my opinion, it was cleaning up this creek bank," he said.
Burke has dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying for a rehabilitation project so large that even state EPA officials voiced skepticism it was feasible. But 12 years of work gathering a coalition of government and public partners has paid off, and a $3.3 million restoration is under way.
The property is still home to landfill above the banks and a massive Duke Energy facility nearby. But the banks are transforming back into a green and thirsty vegetation instead of blackened debris that absorbed no runoff and contributed to, rather than absorbing, pollution.
"It’s massively impressive to see," Byer said. "It looked like 40 feet of black sooty debris that the creek was cutting. Now it’s already starting to greenify. You can play golf (at Hartwell) and enjoy the view.
Byer grew up around the site, comparing it very negatively to the far prettier creeks where he lives in Lebanon. Slowly, the Mill Creek is turning around its reputation.
"You can canoe up and down the Mill Creek and not be worried some chunk of concrete is going to gouge your canoe," he said. "It will be a waterway that people will actually want to navigate."
Wildermuth Preserve, West Chester
A $170,000 project has restored 22 acres of floodplain in West Chester Township, including the addition of a 2,300 floodplain pilot channel.
It's just the latest in 20 years of improvements in and around West Chester, which has won numerous Clean Ohio grants in collaboration with neighboring communities. They include the Port Union Canal bike path and the Port Union Conservation Corridor, both of which follow the path of the creek and the old Miami and Erie Canal.
West Chester's portion of the Mill Creek was spared the industrialization that marred it in the urban core. But poorly controlled erosion and runoff have a bad effect downstream, and Wiegand said the township is cognizant of the benefits to the region's economy when West Chester works to restore the creek.
"Waterways don't care about political boundaries," West Chester Economic Development Director Aaron Wiegand said. I compare it to one jurisdiction building a nice four-lane road. That doesn't do any good if there are narrow gravel roads on either side. Rivers are very much the same."
Wiegand doesn't attribute West Chester's robust growth to the Mill Creek as an attraction, necessarily. But Whatever we do is only going to benefit as lots of people are on board.
But Barbara Wilson, a West Chester spokeswoman, said communal efforts on things like a bike path that now connects to Fairfield's add appeal to the township's bid for new and expanded businesses.
"We took it from an unsightly, little-known waterway and turned it into an amenity," Wiegand said.
Link to original article: http://www.wcpo.com/news/insider/not-just-for-the-birds-mill-creeks-restoration-pays-off-economically