Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

June 17, 2013

Not always a bad thing

Floods offer an ecological reset button

By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — In town, floods are a mess. All of the roadside litter gets swept up and channeled into flood areas, where it snags and looks disgusting. Flood waters, laden with raw sewage from combined sewer outfalls, gets into walls and flooring, creating a stench.

But out in Jerome, where state officials turned a logjam into a fish habitat, the marshy floodplain looks the same as ever. Stinging nettles grow up everywhere in the soggy bottom, forming an effective barrier against human encroachment.

Even the 500-foot fish shelf, made out of tree trunks pulled from the mother-of-all logjams, survived the flood mostly intact. One of the dozens of steel cables holding the tree trunks in place had snapped, allowing one of the trunks, about 18-inches in diameter and about 10 feet long, to break free and stick out of the shelf.

“Any kind of trash in roadside swales will become waterborne, and gets whisked through the pipes,” Wildcat Guardians past-president Sarah Brichford said. “Plastic straws, fast food containers, water bottles, styrofoam cups, water bottles ... there was a picnic table wedged underneath the Dixon Road bridge.”

Rick Peercy, a wildlife biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said the effect of a major flood isn’t catastrophic to wildlife, but said a flood does wipe out breeding habitat, particularly for burrowing animals.

“Animals, for the most part, bounce back. It doesn’t scarify the earth, it just sets back the natural succession,” Peercy said. “It just resets the clock.”

Fish studies suggest some species have better breeding years when there is a low, consistent flow through streams, rather than the raging torrents the Wildcat has seen lately, according to DNR fisheries biologist Jed Pearson.

Stream bank erosion can cover over prime breeding habitats with sediment, and shady areas where fish breed can be washed away, Pearson added.

“Erosion is a concern for us — probably one of the main factors in Indiana is the amount of soil sediment that gets into our rivers,” he said. Several programs exist to preserve topsoil in Indiana, from construction rules to a Soil & Water Preservation District office in every county.

In the wake of flooding in Indiana, there is no mandated testing protocol, no required research to assess any damage to the ecosystem.

But the DNR does assess one important aspect of stream health, by testing the flesh of fish for certain toxic metals and contaminants, particularly polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs, cancer-causing industrial compounds which have been banned since the 1970s.

Two of the 12 most heavily contaminated streams in Indiana are in Howard County. The Wildcat Creek, downstream of the Indiana American Water Company dam near Carter Street and U.S. 31, has a Level 5 fish consumption advisory, with fish in that stretch of stream — all the way to the western edge of Howard County — deemed unsafe to eat.

The Kokomo Creek in urban Kokomo, from U.S. 31 to the creek’s junction with the Wildcat, has the same level advisory. The former Continental Steel plant is just one of the suspected sources of the PCBs which contaminate the fish here.

But with close to $80 million spent over the past decade cleaning up the land and water around the old steel factory, there’s hope that Kokomo’s long history of environmental issues could be coming to an end.

Jim Stahl, a senior environmental manager at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, will be part of a team coming to Kokomo this summer to test the fish.

Using electric cables, they’ll be shocking fish, dividing the catch up by species, and then testing the flesh for different contaminants.

Chemicals like PCBs and organochlorine pesticides are known as “bioaccumulates” because they don’t break down easily, and animals in contaminated areas become more contaminated the further they are up the food chain. By the time fish are big enough to be desired by humans for food, they’ve accumulated enough toxins to be dangerous, Stahl explained.

Like PCBs, organochlorine pesticides have also been banned for years in the U.S. The compound DDT is probably the most notorious of the organochlorine pesticides.

State biologists try to assess each of the state’s watersheds on a 5-year cycle, and this year, they’ll test fish throughout the Upper Wabash River basin. They focus mainly on known hot spots; the Kokomo Reservoir, Stahl said, is always a “non-issue.”

Even before the massive federal cleanup at Continental Steel, the Wildcat was showing signs of improvement, as nature, aided by spring floods, worked its magic.

The Wildcat was once a Level 5 stream all the way to the Wabash River, but based on data from the last 10 years, the stretch of the Wildcat in Tippecanoe County now has fish which are considered safe to eat.

“Species are now starting to recruit back into the system that haven’t been seen in 100 years,” Stahl said. “These remediations work, but how fast they work is the question.”

The April 19 flood was a show of force from the Wildcat, but the pollution still in the stream, along with the tons of trash the Wildcat Guardians and others haul out of the stream every year, indicate that the stream has taken as much punishment as it has dished out.