Hiking Trails

The river speaks: how to protect the river

When we consider rivers, we don’t always think about what is built around them, but that’s something Robert Gable does. He is responsible for the Scenic Rivers Program for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. He has been studying the Little Miami River for 30 years now. Gable told Hope Taft that the river is still very healthy, but the continued development around it – all the new housing and mini malls – could be a concern if not carefully designed.

Gable: You have a landscape that was largely agricultural. And once you convert that to a cityscape, you go from open terrain to an impermeable surface. So you start laying asphalt, packing houses and roofs. All of these hard surfaces shed water. And the first thing that happens is that we increase the volume of runoff. So every time it rains, the water that previously soaked into the ground now hits a hard asphalt surface. All water quickly drains from asphalt surfaces and hard surfaces into the storm sewer system, directly into the river. And then the river rises very quickly. This therefore causes more flash flooding in the stream.

You get an increased frequency of floods, especially in recent years with climate change. We have more intense rain events, more frequent heavy rain events, I think. It’s a bit of an overview. These are the hydraulic impacts of an increased impermeable surface.

There are also chemical impacts. There are many pollutants on asphalt services from vehicles and other sources. So you have bits of rubber and broken drum linings and leaking oil and gasoline and other fluids leaking from vehicles.

What I always tell people is that the best way—if you want to see the pollutants that are on the surface of a parking lot or something like that—is to look in the winter after snow removal. You see this old pile of dirty snow. The snow is white, isn’t it? But you have all this black and gray material. You also get all that material delivered to the stream system. And obviously you can have heavy metals, hydrocarbon compounds. If it’s in an urban or residential area, there may be fertilizers and pesticides from lawn care.

Taft: I like that explanation.

Gable: Thanks.

Taft: It definitely shows that chemicals and such make it a little less appealing to go for a swim or flip a canoe.

Gable: Yes, absolutely. If we think more about how we develop the landscape and do it in a more sensitive way, we can minimize the impacts associated with this urbanization on the river system.

So incorporate things like conservation subdivision design. Let’s say you have a 100 acre field and if you do a traditional design you’ll get maybe 91 acre lots out of it and you’ll have the other ten acres of roads. If you are designing a conservation subdivision, then you are using 50% of the site as green space.

So now you’re talking about having wooded areas. These may be small streams. You can actually circumvent the landscape of the site to protect these natural features. Leave woodlots, leave small streams, don’t put in small streams and pipes, which we have done many times over the years. Leave them open. These areas can be public green spaces that residents of the community can enjoy. You can develop soft surface hiking trails through them and they can be a convenience for residents. The 50% open space now allows water to infiltrate again rather than run off the surface of roofs, lawns and pavements.

Taft: So what are your dreams? A little Miami in the next 50 years.

Gable: I would like to keep it as it is, or at least see it improve where possible. It is still in very good condition. You have exceptional fishing. It’s full of smallmouth bass, canal, catfish, rock, bass. All the species you would expect to find in a healthy stream and in good numbers. Water quality is back. Invertebrate populations are still very healthy, and the Little Miami Trail runs along most of the Miami River. So it really is a phenomenal recreational resource and convenience to the southwestern Ohio counties that pass through it.

The River Speaks, an oral history of Little Miami, is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices.