Garden Views: Clean watersheds needed for long-term sustainability


Who can forget August 2014 when the City of Toledo experienced a water quality crisis caused by a toxic algal bloom. Toxic algae are a misleading name. Though the water has a green alga look to it, it is comprised of a type of bacteria. These bacteria are collectively known as cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria are microscopic and photosynthetic in that they like plants can produce their own food. These bacteria are found in all lakes in small amounts and are a natural part of a lake’s ecosystem. However, high nutrient concentrations containing phosphorous can promote a population explosion of these organisms that result in algal (cyanobacteria) blooms, especially during warm weather.

Cyanobacteria by themselves are not toxic. Another nutrient nitrogen is involved though in small amounts drives the toxin. These toxins collectively called cyanotoxins can damage the liver or nervous system, produce gastrointestinal symptoms, or cause skin irritation. Unfortunately, you cannot look at a cyanobacteria bloom and tell if it is toxic. Samples must be sent to labs for testing that takes time. Fortunately, the City of Toledo’s water samples back in 2014 were not toxic. Lake Erie beaches however did have toxic cyanobacteria blooms.

This prompted Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in 2019, to enact a comprehensive water quality initiative that is working to strategically address serious water issues that have been building in Ohio for decades. Such problems include harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie caused by phosphorus runoff from farm fertilizer, wastewater, home sewage treatment systems, and failing drinking water due to aging infrastructure, and lead contamination from old water pipes and fixtures.

Since 2019 Ohio agricultural producers have developed practices that include applying fertilizers at the right time, the right place, and the right amount for the growing of crops that ultimately feeds the United States and world exports.

Fast forward to late February 2024. The Portage River is a west-to-east flowing river in Northwest Ohio that empties into Lake Erie at Port Clinton. This watershed is 612 square miles or 391,682 acres. Part of this watershed is the northern branch that flows into the Portage River at Pemberville.

Pemberville is known for its family-oriented, friendly, and festival centered community. It also hosts fishing along the Portage River accessible at William Henry Harrison Park part of the Wood County Park District.

A local Pemberville business North Branch Nursery reached out to the Ohio State University Extension Office in late February about some insects that were congregating on their greenhouses and nursery crops. Though they appeared not to be causing any damage they never seen these before.

The insects were the adults known as winter Stoneflies (Plecoptera spp.) Stoneflies are a type of insect that spends its juvenile life in the water and its adult life in the air and on land.

So, what is so fascinating about this new insect you may ask? Stoneflies are extremely sensitive to polluted waters and are widely used as bioindicators of healthy streams. Simply put, these insects just do not tolerate waterways that may be polluted by chemicals, nutrients, and high loads of sediment. When we find stoneflies living in a river or streams, we know conditions are clean and healthy.

Our agricultural producers are doing their part in creating healthy waterways. Homeowners and municipal communities also need to do their part in creating clean healthy waterways. These include applying fertilizers to our turf grass and gardens at the right time, the right place, and with the right amount. Other practices that need to be addressed is fixing failing septic systems and separating combined storm and sewage systems.

Ohioans all need healthy clean watersheds, lakes, and streams for our long-term sustainability. It is encouraging seeing the stoneflies along the North branch of the Portage River which is an indicator of the groundwork to a healthy stream. A most welcome sight!

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