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In this series you’ll hear stories about the health of the river, its place in our local culture and history and the wildlife and the humans who’ve made the river their home. The interviews were gathered by volunteers from the Little Miami River Watershed Network – and they were made into our radio series by WYSO producer Jason Reynolds.

The River Speaks: How to Protect the River

Water drains into the Little Miami River as a goose floats by.
Jason Reynolds
Water drains into the Little Miami River as a goose floats by.

When we consider rivers, we don’t always think about what’s built around them, but that’s something Robert Gable does. He’s the scenic rivers program manager for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. He’s been studying the Little Miami River for 30 years now. Gable told Hope Taft the river is still very healthy, but the continuing development around it — all the new housing and mini malls — could be cause for concern if they’re not designed carefully.

Gable: You have a landscape that was largely agricultural. And once you convert that over to an urban landscape, you go from open land to impervious surface. So you begin to lay down asphalt, packing homes and rooftops. All these hard surfaces shed water. And the first thing that happens is we increase the volume of runoff. So every time it rains, water that previously would soak into the ground is now hitting an asphalt hard surface. All the water runs off quickly, off the asphalt surfaces and the hard surfaces into the storm sewer system, straight to the river. And then the river comes up very quickly. So this causes more flash flooding in the stream.

You get increased frequency of flood events, especially now in recent years with climate change. We're having more intense rain events, more frequent heavy rain events, I think. So that's kind of the overview. That's the hydraulic impacts of increased impervious surface.

You also have the chemical impacts. There's a lot of pollutants on asphalt services from vehicles and other sources. So you have rubber bits and break drum linings and oil and gasoline leaks and other fluids leaking from vehicles.

What I always tell people is the best way—if you want to see the pollutants that are on the surface of a parking lot or something—is to look in the wintertime after the snow has been plowed. You see that old dirty pile of snow. Snow's white, right? But you have all that black and gray material. You get all that material delivered to the stream system as well. And obviously, you can have heavy metals in it, hydrocarbon compounds. If it's in an urban area or residential area, it can have fertilizers and pesticides from lawn care.

Taft: I like that explanation that.

Gable: Thank you.

Taft: That makes it clear that chemicals and stuff make it a little less attractive to go swimming in or to turn over a canoe in.

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

So incorporating things like conservation subdivision design. Say you have a 100 acre field and if you do a traditional design, maybe you get 91 acre lots out of it and you have the other ten acres of the roads in thing. If you do a conservation subdivision design, then you use the 50% of the site in greenspace.

So now you're talking about having wooded areas. It can be small streams. You can actually work around the landscape of the site to protect those natural features. Leave wood lots, leave small streams, don't put small streams and pipes, which is something that we've done many times over the years. Leave those open. They can be these areas can be public greenspace for the residents of the community to enjoy. You can develop soft surface hiking trails through them and they can be amenity for the residents. The 50% open space now allows water to infiltrate again rather than run off of the surface of rooftops, lawns and roadways.

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 it can. It's still in very good shape. Got an outstanding fishery. It's full of smallmouth bass, channel, catfish, rock, bass. All the all the species you expect to be in a healthy stream and good numbers of them. Water quality is back. Invertebrate populations are still very healthy and in the Little Miami trail runs along most of the length of the Miami River. So it's really a phenomenal recreational resource and an amenity to those counties in southwest Ohio that flows through.

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