Water quality problems in Lake Erie don’t begin at the shoreline. They begin in the subwatersheds that drain water from all the land surrounding the lake. So following the water provides the best reasons for a shared mission to restore and protect it.
One subwatershed that merits immediate attention and protection is the Conneaut Creek watershed, which drains 190.7 square miles in portions of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Because it has not suffered the effects of industrial contamination and land development like many of the other Lake Erie subwatersheds, Conneaut Creek still has an extensive forested corridor. As a result, the overall good water quality makes it one of the most biologically diverse of all Lake Erie tributaries.
Surveys of Conneaut Creek identified 78 fish species, 32 species of amphibians and reptiles and 98 bird species in or along the creek. The creek also supports populations of native freshwater mussels and contains the largest continuous tract of forest, which includes extensive wetlands in Pennsylvania.
In Ashtabula County, a 21-mile stretch of the creek from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border to the city of Conneaut on the Lake Erie shore is one of only three stream segments listed as an Ohio State Wildand Scenic River. Conneaut Creek is a popular destination for anglers for its quality steelhead and for smallmouth bass,walleye and northern pike. Also noteworthy is the occurrence of the beautiful but threatened Southern red belly dace and the rare and odd-looking brook stickle back because these fish are more vulnerable to changes in the environment.
The majority of this watershed lies on 153.1 square miles of land in Crawford and Erie counties. Water flows into smaller and larger streams and eventually into Conneaut Creek through eight townships and four boroughs before crossing over into Ashtabula County in Ohio, where it empties into Lake Erie at Conneaut Harbor. This watershed directly connects the residents living there with millions of others who depend on Lake Erie for drinking water. For now, this watershed supports outstanding wildlife populations and water protection. But adverse Impacts from development, wastewater, non-point source pollution, timbering, filling of wetlands and floodplains and oil and gas development could seriously impact this water shed that serves as a refuge for rare and endangered species of plants, fish and mussels.
The Albion Wastewater Treatment Plant’s record of effluent violations and the recent proposal to build a $360 million iron-smelting plant in this community, which lacks the capacity to provide the 1.8 million gallons of water needed daily by the plant, are pressing issues. Another recent proposal to dig a deep injection well for toxic fracking waste on property south of Interstate 90 in Conneaut has generated sizable opposition from Conneaut City Council and neighbors concerned about contamination, noise, seismic activity and the negative impact on nearby Conneaut Creek.
The Nature Conservancy, which includes Conneaut Creek as one of the 20 most important watersheds for conservation in the Great Lakes basin, has partnered with Pennsylvania Sea Grant to prioritize land protection efforts. These two groups are also helping the Lake Erie Region Conservancy implement a watershed conservation plan that provides the frame work for citizens’ groups, land trusts and government agencies to get involved. Ohio conservation groups have similar programs. Isn’t it time you got involved?