Middle St. Joseph Watershed Management Plan

The United States has over 3.5 million miles of streams stretching across its landscape which provide many eco-services to the citizens of the US such as recreational activities, sustenance, and transportation. However, rapid population growth, urban sprawl, industrial discharges, and unsustainable farming techniques pose many threats to the health of these valuable resources. In the early 1970’s several focusing events, including the Cuyahoga River fires and Lake Erie hypoxia, brought national attention to the need for water pollution control policy which lead to the passing of the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972. The CWA brought industrial discharge into surface waters down precipitously, which reduced the number of fish kills and river fires. However, nonpoint source pollution (NPS) is believed to be the leading cause of surface water impairment in the United States, so in 1987 Congress amended the CWA to put more focus on NPS. Enforcement of NPS discharge is limited as NPS comes from unknown and diffuse areas and heavy restrictions would affect the livelihood of the nation’s farmers. The development of a comprehensive watershed management plan (WMP) will help to avoid further restrictions on NPS and identify specific sources of pollution so that efforts to decrease pollution runoff can be focused to those areas that are found to be the biggest contributor to NPS within a watershed, without alienating producers and landowners.

The St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative (Initiative), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization composed of representatives from local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, universities, and concerned citizens, recognized the impact a WMP would have on a community and the water quality of a watershed and began writing WMPs in 1999, with the first, the greater St. Joseph River Watershed (Hydrologic Unit Code 04100003) being approved in 2001 by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). The Initiative has prided itself in its ability to cross political boundaries and engage all stakeholders in the watershed, as a watershed approach to water quality is the only way to have a long term positive impact on the quality of our river systems. The St. Joseph River WMP includes a large area crossing state lines into Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. However, since the WMP covers such a large area it was difficult to hone in on specific areas of concern in each of the subwatersheds located within HUC 04100003 which is why goal #1 of the greater St. Joseph River WMP is “By 2020, organize stakeholders and produce watershed plans for the HUC-11 subwatersheds which have not yet been completed…” Note that HUCs were converted to 10 and 12 digit scales nationwide in 2008. Therefore, the Initiative’s goal for HUC-11 subwatersheds would now be referred to as HUC 10 subwatersheds.

The Initiative has written WMPs for two subwatersheds within the greater St. Joseph River Watershed; the Lower St. Joseph River – Bear Creek Watershed and the Cedar Creek Watershed. After those two WMPs, there were another five HUC-10 subwatersheds that still required comprehensive WMPs. The Initiative then began to investigate which subwatershed to focus on next.

The Initiative examined historic land use and water quality data for each of the five remaining subwatersheds. Findings showed that water quality data for the Middle St. Joseph River watershed did not meet water quality standards at a higher frequency than the remaining four subwatersheds. Another study of riparian buffers and land use throughout the greater St. Joseph River watershed showed that the Middle St. Joseph watershed scored the lowest for wildlife habitat and had the highest concentration of animal feeding operations. Therefore, the Middle St. Joseph River watershed (HUC 0410000305) was chosen as the next subwatershed to focus efforts. In September, 2009 the Initiative applied for a Clean Water Act §319 grant administered by the IDEM to fund the Middle St. Joseph River Watershed (MSJRW) project. The grant was awarded to the Initiative and the project began in September, 2010.

It is necessary to engage the stakeholders in the watershed to write a comprehensive WMP. Therefore, the Initiative hosted two kick-off meetings, one in Edgerton, Ohio and another in Butler, Indiana, to explain the mission of the Initiative, the watershed planning process, and the motivation for working in the Middle St. Joseph watershed. The meetings also provided a forum for stakeholders to voice any concerns they had about the project or water quality and land uses throughout the project area. Public notices announcing the meetings were placed on the websites of the two urban centers located in the project area, Butler, IN (population 2,681) and Edgerton, OH (population 1,939) as well as the websites of DeKalb and Williams County SWCD, and the Initiative. Press releases were also sent to local newspapers. Mailing lists of landowners living within the project area were produced by the DeKalb and Williams County SWCDs and invitations to the meetings were sent to those addresses.

There were approximately 60 stakeholders in attendance at the kickoff meetings representing landowners, producers, industry, and agencies and the Initiative was able to solicit commitments from nine individuals to serve on the steering committee for the project. Table 1.1 below is a list of those steering committee members and what entity they represent.