Rivers Quarterly Spring 2004
Newsletter of Rivers Unlimited, Ohio's Statewide River Protection Organization
Local Updates: Fighting for the Future of Darby Creek
Big Darby Creek in central Ohio has long been recognized for is high quality water, its rare and endangered species, and it scenic beauty. The river, and its companion Little Darby Creek, are state and national Scenic Rivers, and were named by the Nature Conservancy as one of the “Last Great Places” in the western hemisphere.
Now Darby has another distinction: it has been recognized as one of the country’s most endangered rivers.
In April Darby was placed on a list of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers in America by the national conservation group American Rivers. The annual list highlights the rivers that are both highly significant on a national level, and also in immediate threat of degradation.
In Darby’s case, the immediate threat comes from unregulated urban sprawl. Darby is unique in that it is the only National Scenic River with a major U.S. city spilling into its watershed. Columbus, the 15th largest city in the country, is currently building along the creek’s eastern border, with many more homes possible in coming years. Not surprisingly, EPA data shows that Hellbranch Run, Darby’s easternmost tributary, is one of the watershed’s poorest quality streams.
News that Darby had made the endangered rivers list came as no surprise to the Darby Creek Association, the watershed’s grassroots river group and the group that nominated Darby to the list. DCA and other partners have been working for years trying to convince Columbus and other watershed jurisdictions to go slow when it comes to new development.
At times this has been a tough sell. Developers wield a lot of clout in the area, which not coincidentally is the fastest growing region of the state. But area conservationists and smart growth advocates have gradually built some momentum in the fight.
In 2002, for example, another citizens group, Progress with Economic and Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, succeeded in forcing Columbus City Council to agree to a 2-year moratorium on development in the watershed by threatening to put a ballot issue to a vote in the city.
At almost the same time, the Ohio EPA put a moratorium on major development in most of the watershed in Franklin County. This temporary halt will be in effect until a stakeholder advisory group can recommend protective regulations that will be sufficient to protect water quality.
But there is no guarantee for success. For one thing, the Columbus moratorium runs out in December, and the city is balking at extending it, even though the city has frittered away its 2-year window without coming up with a plan to protect the creek. Ironically, the city is not bound by the EPA protections that will govern the rest of the Darby watershed in the county. This major loophole is of serious concern, and one reason why PEER is once again collecting signatures, this time for an extension of the moratorium that could last up to 5 years.
Secondly, the EPA’s advisory group is a political creature, made up of representatives from numerous local jurisdictions, government agencies, and developers, as well as environmental groups. Considerable mistrust exists between jurisdictions, which in the past has resulted in a competition to develop before neighboring jurisdictions can move in. Whether protections recommended by the group are truly adequate thus remains to be seen.
Hopefully, Darby’s new status as an endangered river will be a wake-up call to local decision-makers. If Darby is to maintain its excellent quality the central Ohio region will have to achieve new levels of cooperation, and new levels of intelligent planning. Whether we’re up to the task remains to be seen.
But the thousands of people who have grown attached to this “Last Great Place” are going to have a say in the matter, and therein lies our greatest hope.
The Darby Creek Association encourages citizens to call or write state and central Ohio officials, urging caution in the Darby. Every voice counts.
President, Darby Creek Association