Ohio Water-Quality Grades Educate and Inspire Action

The Takeaway: “A to F” report cards enlighten residents on the “where” and “what” of water-quality problems, as well as actions to take that could help improve grades.

A decade ago, partners along Ohio’s Lake Erie coast tried a whole new approach to communicate the water-quality status of Old Woman Creek, Mills Creek, Pipe Creek, and nearby estuaries—annual report cards featuring grades from A to F. Sporting easy-to-understand graphics and explanations, the report cards have been a great success in galvanizing public awareness and positive actions. The Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is part of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, is a major contributor to this multi-partner effort. Another partner, the Erie Conservation District, hosts the report cards on its site.

In addition, the Erie County Health Department shares its beach-safety data for the report cards.

Reports prompt improvements

Each year the report cards spark new interest, with local landowners calling to learn more about the grades or farmers welcoming site visits to discuss conservation opportunities. A poor watershed grade is motivating one farmer nearby to fence cattle away from a stream, rotate pastures, and create a covered manure storage facility. Moreover, the findings have informed a large-scale state effort to restore wetlands and conserve land.

The annual reports describe problems such as excess sediment, which can harm the health of aquatic creatures; excess nitrogen and phosphorus, often found in agricultural waste, which feed harmful algal blooms; and “vital sign” imbalances in the water’s dissolved oxygen, pH, and ammonia. By comparing past to present report cards, viewers can see whether area water quality is improving, deteriorating, or staying the same. They also learn about the essential role played by estuaries in filtering water and lessening excess nutrients and contaminants.

Strategies to improve water quality.  For farmers these include fertilizer, buffer, and crops. For community they are septic tanks and rain gardens.
The report cards contain water-quality tips for farmers, homeowners, and community members. This illustration advises viewers to use fertilizer wisely, install plant buffers along streams and ditches, avoid bare farm fields, inspect septic systems every 3-5 years, and plant a rain garden or install a rain barrel. Photo credit: Erie Conservation District, adapted by Frank Ruopoli, NOAA

It takes teamwork

Volunteers play a critical role in collecting the stream site data needed to develop the watershed grades. The training and coordination of volunteers, analysis of samples, and outreach and education efforts are accomplished through the combined efforts of research reserve and conservation district personnel. The conservation district develops and distributes the report cards. Water-quality monitoring actions at the reserve are made possible by the National Estuarine Research Reserves’ System-Wide Monitoring Program. (2021)

More Information: Watershed Report Cards

Partners: Erie Conservation District, Firelands Coastal Tributaries Watershed Program, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Integration & Application Network.