published May 17, 2013

From Black Swamp to Green Soup: Campus/Community Partnership Aims for Blue Lake

Glenn Odenbrett, NCSCE

One of the biggest impediments to western expansion of the United States in the early 19th century was the nearly impenetrable Great Black Swamp that spanned Northwest Ohio and Northeast Indiana. For those attempting to cross it during the day, its thick vegetation in places made it seem they were doing so in the black of night. Numerous attempts to transect the Swamp by road and rail sank into the mud – literally. It was when engineers finally understood that such attempts needed to work with, not against, the drainage flow of the Swamp into the Western Basin of Lake Erie that progress was finally made in creating transportation links across it.

European settlers soon realized the enormous agricultural potential of the Swamp, but faced the challenge of soils that were water logged for most of the year. Replicating drainage systems in the lowlands of northern Europe, they built an elaborate system of underground clay tile drains from Swamp clay, which was ideal for this purpose. These tile drains emptied into ditches linked to major waterways, including tributaries of the Maumee River, the largest watershed in the Great Lakes ecosystem. Within a century, most of the Swamp had been converted to some of the richest, most productive farmland in the country.

With the advent of the "Green Revolution" in the mid 20th Century and the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers and commercial pesticides, however, came a new phenomenon in the Western Lake Erie Basin. The same tile drains and ditches that helped create ideal farmland also became highways for the runoff of phosphorus and other chemical nutrients from fields into tributaries of the Basin. Combined with phosphorus-rich detergents and other municipal waste water nutrients, this runoff became "fast food" for fresh water algae, which created a thick green "soup" – sometimes toxic – and "dead zones" in the Lake each summer as it decomposed, as it depleted the dissolved oxygen available for fish and other forms of aquatic life. While phosphorus-based detergents and waste water treatment plant emissions – called "point sources" of pollution – are now strictly limited by the Clean Water Act, agricultural fertilizers from thousands of farms – "non-point" pollution sources – continue to contribute tons of nutrients such as phosphorus to Lake Erie's Western Basin, resulting in some of the worst harmful algal blooms on record in recent years.

Enter the faculty and students of the Biology Department at Defiance College, and its collaboration with the Upper Maumee Watershed Partnership (UMWP). Over the past three years, Defiance College undergraduates in Professor Doug Kane's Biology courses have learned about environmental issues facing the Maumee River watershed and western Lake Erie by examining water quality at sites along the Maumee River from Fort Wayne (Indiana) to Waterville. Through environmental service-learning components of these courses, Dr. Kane's students have monitored the water quality of tributaries of the Upper Maumee River so that the UMWP steering committee can gain a better understanding of the types and amounts of water pollution that exist in each sub-watershed. Once collected, this data is being combined with many other data sets, research, and stakeholder input to finalize a Watershed Action Plan that will be used as a guide for future watershed improvement projects.

Both Professor Kane and his community-based partners clearly see the value of their mutually-beneficial collaboration. According to Kane, "Not only have we gained a lot of information about nutrient-levels in the Maumee River, but students have also been able to engage in experiential learning dealing with real-world scientific and community problems." Stephanie Singer, the Upper Maumee River Watershed Partnership Coordinator, emphasizes the importance of the students' contributions to a better understanding of complicated watershed ecosystems: "The involvement with Defiance College students as we move forward with the Upper Maumee Watershed Action Plan is significant, because they are gathering baseline data for tributaries that we know little about; they are truly part of a community process to improve the watershed."

The environmental service-learning components of Professor Kane's courses are coordinated by Alison Rifenburgh, an undergraduate stewardship liaison (USL) supported by a grant from NCSCE's GLISTEN (Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network) project. For Alison, being a USL is providing a unique conservation-based leadership opportunity, as she will be coordinating the monitoring efforts of her peers during the coming academic year. In addition, says Kane, USLs "have gained additional training that prepares them for graduate school or the workforce after they leave Defiance College."

The efforts of Doug Kane, Stephanie Singer, Alison Rifenburgh and the Defiance College students whose monitoring efforts she coordinates to benefit the Upper Maumee River Watershed Partnership will not eliminate the summer "green soup" in the Western Lake Erie Basin in the very near future. However, longer term, as more Watershed Action Plans are developed through theirs and similar campus/community collaborations, the dream of a "blue lake" year-round may eventually become a reality again.

For more information about this GLISTEN-supported project, contact Doug Kane at or GLISTEN Project Director Glenn Odenbrett as Photograph by Stephanie Singer.