The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency will extend its deadline to accept public comments on an application by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to increase open lake dumping of dredged sediment to Feb. 22. The original deadline was Jan. 21.
The Corps. of Buffalo, N.Y., annually dredges the Toledo Harbor navigational channel to keep the Toledo Harbor open to shipping. Most of the dredged material is then dumped in the open lake area of Lake Erie.
The Corps applied for a water quality certification for the project, which includes the Maumee River and lake approach channel. If approved by the Ohio EPA, the Corps would dredge approximately 2 million cubic yards of sediment annually between 2010-2012. About 1.9 million cubic yards of material would be dumped in the open lake area of Lake Erie, a practice that has long been opposed by the agency, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and local environmental activists. The remaining 100,000 cubic yards would be placed into a confined disposal facility in the lake.
Last year, the Corps was authorized to dump up to 900,000 cubic yards of sediment in the open lake.
The Toledo Harbor is the most heavily dredged of all harbors in the Great Lakes because it is the shallowest.
The Corps claims that dredged sediments get disposed in about 20 feet of water and stay there with little spreading through wave action.
But studies at the University of Toledo Lake Erie Center showed that sediment moves around and that open lake dumping contributes to algae growth.
Open lake dumping has more than doubled since 2003. Before then, most of the sediments dredged from the Toledo shipping channel were placed in a confined area in Maumee Bay.
An average of 190,895 cubic yards of sediments were dumped in the open lake from 1994 through 2002. That number grew to an average of 517,404 cubic yards of sediments from 2003 to 2009.
Oregon Councilman Sandy Bihn, who is also Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper, has joined forces with Toledo Councilman Lindsey Webb to propose an end to open lake dumping by offering an alternative. Instead of dumping the dredged material in the open lake, they suggest it be used to build an eco-island for fish habitat near the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse.
“I work on this issue day and night,” Bihn told The Press last week. “This is a huge part of the work I’m doing now to get this thing done. We’d like to see the island be a demonstration project for building fish reefs and recreating wetland areas using sediments to build it up.”
A similar project has been successful in Texas, she said.
“It’s caused a huge resurgence in the fish population in Galveston Bay. We are going deeper here, and the cost would be more because of the nature of the watershed,” said Bihn.
“We’d like to build a smaller pilot project, on 100 acres, that would have capacity for five years or so,” added Bihn. “We could see if it works for the fishing, and the dredging, and learn from that. Then perhaps it could be expanded, or we could build another island. There’s no perfect answers in a watershed that has waters that move from the lake into the river, and move from the river into the lake, with a bay in between. It’s a very complex water system. So it’s difficult to have good science to figure these things out. The good thing about an island by the lighthouse is that fishermen, boaters, and other people familiar with the lake believe that location would be good for the fisheries. It doesn’t impede or stop circulation or harm existing reefs and fishing areas, things you want to watch out for. This would be truly creating a new area that would enhance the ecological attributes of the bay and Western Lake Erie.”
In addition, the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society is excited about an opportunity to have a preserve with fisheries near the lighthouse, said Bihn.
“It would certainly enhance the utility of the lighthouse and kind of complement it with a natural area adjacent to it,” said Bihn.
“We asked the deadline for public comment be extended so people have a chance to review it and hopefully build a better consensus,” she said.
Anyone may submit comments to the Ohio EPA, or request to be placed on a mailing list for information, by writing to: Ohio EPA, Division of Surface Water, Permits Processing Unit, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, OH 43216-1049. The application and other related materials are available for review at Ohio EPA’s Northwest District Office in Bowling Green by calling 419-352-8461.