By Trent A. Dougherty, Ohio Environmental Council
For well over a century, landowners have used Ohio’s Ditch Laws and channelizing of streams as the most economical way to rid their land of excess water. Thus, ditches have been the major conveyance of stormwater for much of Ohio’s rural areas, and especially for the former Black Swamp region of Northwest Ohio. With the traditional method of drainage also comes a cost to the water and resource quality of the watershed. Yet, the regulatory mechanisms provided by the Clean Water Act to protect watercourses from the ill-effects of stormwater have not traditionally been applied to ditches.
While the drainage ditch laws have traditionally been applied in rural areas to aid in agricultural production, ditching of streams is no longer confined to the farms fields. As sprawl brings more people and more businesses into once smaller and remote villages and municipalities, has it also brought the need for stormwater drainage improvement? Some municipalities are developing at such a rate that they are out-growing the current infrastructure. To make up for poor stormwater management some municipalities are turning to ditches.
Perhaps this is because traditionally ditching projects have not needed permits; and the ditch laws allow the costs of these projects to be spread to “benefiting” landowners. Also, the Ohio EPA has traditionally not bothered itself with the water quality impacts of ditching, as it has with other stormwater improvement projects.
However, the culture may be changing. The water quality impacts from hydromodification of streams (or the physical alteration of a stream such as deepening, straightening, ditching, filling or otherwise) for stormwater are evident and are being documented by researchers and governmental agencies. Even the Ohio EPA has recognized hydromodification as a major water quality problem. The agency has cited that such modification is “the origin of the habitat degradation, pollutant, nutrient, siltation and sedimentation problems in smaller streams and a leading source of impairment to the water quality of larger streams into which they flow.”
A recent complaint filed with the Ohio EPA, alleged that a ditch project on Marion County’s Bee Run required a Clean Water Act storm water permit because construction of the project would disturb over an acre of land. Routinely, individual ditching projects are performed on relatively short segments of a water course, but ditch construction activities rival the impacts of construction that are traditionally regulated. Upon investigation by Ohio EPA officials, it was concluded that the construction of the ditch created such a large footprint that a permit was necessary. To quote the Ohio EPA’s investigatory report: “Stormwater discharges from this activity will carry fill material, dredged material and suspended solids into Bee Run, which are waters of the state.” An investigation of this degree, a conclusion that among other permits needed, that a stormwater permit was necessary for a drainage ditch project, and the conclusion that a “ditch” is a water of the state, is unprecedented.
As mentioned, the culture of destroying streams as the means of providing stormwater drainage is changing. The change is neither monumental nor swift. Nevertheless, the need for change to provide for water quality protection is real, and there are opportunities to marry concerns of water quality and water quantity. Landowners and cities want the stormwater off their land; enviros want the water clean; yet it is up to both to come together to find the solution.