Overall, the Walnut Creek watershed is an exceptional water source, according to a draft report on the region from the Ohio EPA.
In the southern portion of the watershed, near Ashville, biologists discovered several species of endangered fish, the report states.
On the northern end of the watershed, the news is not as good.
Many of the tributaries including Sycamore Creek, Georges Creek, Big Run and Slate Run do not meet Ohio Water quality standards, according to the report.
The sources of the pollution vary.
In rural areas, animals wading through streams disturb sediment while poorly maintained septic systems leak into ground water, the report states.
In urban areas, problems arise from construction runoff and inadequate water treatment facilities.
The report specifically mentions Pickerington’s waste water treatment plant as harmful to the life in Sycamore Creek.
Pickerington draws its drinking water from wells at the water treatment plant along Diley Road, Pickerington staff engineer Brenda VanCleave said.
The water pumped from these wells contains many hard minerals, therefore the city softens the water before distributing it to homes and businesses, she said. The city’s water softener uses salt.
The softening process creates a brine byproduct, which flows to waste water treatment plant along Hill Road, she said.
The treatment plant cannot remove the brine minerals – officially referred to as Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) from the water, VanCleave said.
At the plant, the brine mixes with the cleaned wastewater before pouring into Sycamore Creek, she said.
That increased TDS level has harmed aquatic insects, the OEPA report states.
The high TDS levels are a violation of the terms of the city’s wastewater permit with OEPA.
The OEPA gave Pickerington a deadline of 2009 to lower its TDS levels, but the city did not comply, according to the OEPA.
On the advice of attorney Steve Samuels of the city’s law firm, Schottenstein, Zox and Dunn, Pickerington opted to challenge the OEPA permit levels.
Samuels had been working on a similar case with Fairfield County against the OEPA.
The county had hired an independent firm called EnviroScience to measure the impact of its wastewater on stream life, Samuels said.
The EnviroScience study determined that the county caused no harm, Samuels said.
Currently the county’s case is awaiting a verdict from Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC), which acts as an appeals court for the OEPA, Samuels said.
Despite not knowing the outcome of the county’s case, Pickerington hired EnviroScience to perform a similar service for the city.
If Pickerington fails to convince the OEPA that the state standards are too strict, the city will need to install a new water softening system.
The most effective system, a reverse-osmosis (RO) system, would eliminate the TDS problem and provide better tasting water, VanCleave said.
The RO, however, comes with a $2 million price tag.
"The city is not going to spend $2 million to satisfy a permit limit until a problem has been determined," Samuels said.
Samuels said the preliminary results from EnviroScience that he received on Dec. 7 indicated that no fish had been harmed in Sycamore Creek, but there was a negligible effect on bugs.
The loss of water insects is a problem, said Mike Galloway, a manager with the OEPA. The insects are on the bottom of the food chain, he said.
"If the insect population breaks down, the fish population breaks down," Galloway said.
It is too early to tell whether the EnviroScience results will change the TDS requirements for Pickerington, he said.
Enviroscience is a credible firm, though, he said.
"We certainly want to look at their study with our biologists," Galloway said.
Canal Winchester’s waste water treatment permit will renew in 2013, and the village will need to meet the same TDS limit that the OEPA requires of Pickerington, said Steve Smith, Canal Winchester’s water reclamation manager.
"We already meet the permit limit," Smith said.
To read the entire Walnut Creek report and/or leave a comment regarding it, visit the OEPA Web site at www.epa.ohio.gov/dsw/tmdl/WalnutCreekTMDL.aspx.