Region ready to embrace Great Miami River after long estrangement

The Great Miami River is increasingly feeling love from the cities along its banks within a 99-mile stretch from Sidney through Hamilton.

As the quality of the water has steadily improved the past four decades, communities are increasingly connecting their downtowns to the river, with other recreation options such as canoeing, camping and bicycling increasing biking and hiking trails beside the waterway.

And now, communities are hoping to create a tourism destination along that 99-mile stretch, called the Great Miami Riverway.

RELATED: The Great Miami River could be the next big regional destination

After the Great Miami Flood of 1913 devastated cities up and down the river, killing and displacing many, cities turned their backs on the Great Miami. Tall earthen levees and concrete flood walls were built to prevent another disaster.

Those flood-protection measures had great success. Since 1922, when the Miami Conservancy District completed the flood-protection system to protect cities, “None of these areas has flooded from the Great Miami River,” according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Elizabeth Connor, the conservancy district’s coordinator of the Great Miami Riverway effort, said the riverway could be a local Napa Valley or Outer Banks-type tourism success.

“We have a lot of opportunity here” with the riverway, city of Hamilton employee Jacob Stone, the city’s liaison to the effort, said.

But there are obstacles to overcome. Among them, according to an analysis by the corps of engineers:

  • The somewhat outdated perception that the river is too dirty. It's not too dirty for non-contact activities, such as boating, and some segments of the river are impressively clean.
  • Proponents need to build a unified identity for the riverway, and continue filling gaps of trails along the river.
  • Community events and festivals often don't incorporate the river.
  • Low-level dams, such as those north and south of Hamilton's downtown, make it difficult to boat down the river without carrying the canoe or kayak around the dams. Several groups, such as Rivers Unlimited, advocate removing such dams, or creating similar water barriers that allow canoes to navigate through them.
  • The flood levees create physical barriers for people to reach the river, although communities have been building ramps and pedestrian bridges for easier access

Water Quality Improving

As Earth Day approaches (it’s April 22), there’s good news about the water quality along the Great Miami River and its tributaries, including the Stillwater River in Darke County, and the Mad River in Champaign and Clark counties: It’s been gradually improving.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in a 1996 report, reflecting on changes from the early 1970s until that year, wrote that the Great Miami River’s water quality improvements “rank as some of the most significant improvements observed for any Ohio river or stream in our … experience conducting statewide biological surveys.”

The gains continue, as they generally have in waterways across the state.

“In July of 2016, we were awarded National Water Trail designation from the Secretary of the Interior, from the Department of the Interior, associated with the National Park Service,” said Sarah Hippensteel Hall of the conservancy district. ” They have this designation that are only rivers that are clean and healthy, and have great public access for things like fishing and boating, are able to win that designation.”

The conservancy district lists the Upper Great Miami River — upstream of Dayton — in “very good condition,” with almost the whole area from Sidney to Dayton categorized as “excellent.”

The Lower Great Miami River is more of a mix. It’s mostly “very good” until about Miamisburg, where water quality becomes “good” or “very good,” until reaching about Middletown, where it drops to “fair” and then improves to “good” before dropping to “fair” downstream of Hamilton. Further downstream, it improves to mostly “very good” or excellent.

“It gets cleaned up in our section” (further downstream of Hamilton, around the Hamilton County border),” said Michael Miller, a professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati who tests areas of the river downstream of Hamilton for Rivers Unlimited. That’s because there are no sewage-treatment plants in the area between Fairfield and the Ohio River, he said.

The river “gets hammered” with sewage from some cities, and also from fertilizer runoff from farms and homes, he said. Middletown recently entered a consent decree with federal regulators to make fixes that eventually will stop the pollution from millions of gallons of untreated sewage each year into the river.

MORE: Middletown to spend $265M to resolve EPA enforcement claims

“Tests for e. coli bacteria meet the water-quality standards for non-contact recreation — canoeing and, kayaking, on almost all dates (of water tests),” Miller said. “It’s in pretty good shape, and of course, it’s been getting better.”

He’s a proponent of making changes to the low-level dam south of downtown Hamilton to allow fish migration and improve a habitat for fish and animals in the pool it creates through Hamilton. As for the low-level dam north of the city, it “ought to be blasted out,” he said.

In fact, Hippensteel Hall said, the removal of that dam, near Combs Park, is being considered: “We’re studying it right now to see what would happen if it was removed. That doesn’t mean that we will, but we want to understand the effect of its removal on the river. Once we understand that, then we can decide what to do.”

More Recreation

While low-level dams hinder boating on the river, Stone said there are possible solutions, other than removing them completely, which would lessen the boating possibilities immediately upstream of them.

None of the low-level dams was built for flood protection.

“There are some pretty crafty things you can do with those low-head dams,” Stone said. “If you’ve taken a look at the infrastructure they’ve put in in Dayton, essentially, instead of having a concrete block that sits in the river, they now have 50-100 feet of a casual and slow drop that creates a rapids complex that you can actually kayak through.”

“That’s the dream solution,” he said. “But the in-between is an option where they take a piece of the dam and turn it into what’s called a kayak slip. that’s a portion of the dam that they grade to allow you to be able to go over it in a kayak, without there being as much danger.”

One thing that is needed for more participation along the riverway is places for people to stay if they spend several days traveling it.

“We have definitely seen some increase in camping over the past 10 years,” Hippensteel Hall said. “Miami County Park District now has a formal campsite, and there are others. All those park districts along the river, all the cities, they’re always thinking about where can they add that stuff. We’re adding hotels.”

She listed three new hotels in Dayton near the riverway, with a new one proposed at Hamilton’s envisioned Spooky Nook Sports at Champion Mill indoor sports complex in Hamilton.

“Not everybody wants to camp, right?” she said. “Personally, I’d like to paddle up to the hotel, lock my kayak up, and then sleep in a bed for the night.”

Why doesn’t the riverway extend further south, such as into Fairfield or the other 31 miles to the Ohio River?

“It was the communities between Sidney and Hamilton that originally got together, and it’s always been open to additional communities,” Hippensteel Hall said. “They just have to ask to join.”

“If Fairfield asked to participate, they could join at any time. It’s just a matter of a membership commitment,” she said. “And we have had some conversations with Fairfield over the years. They don’t have a riverfront park like a lot of these other communities.”

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