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Troubled waters

WFWA documentary A Watershed Mentality explores the quality of water and life in the Maumee River basin

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2007-06-18


Fort Wayne’s very own Maumee River, which starts here at the confluence of the St. Joseph and St Mary’s rivers, goes on to make quite a name for itself once it gets out of town. It’s not only the largest tributary to the Great Lakes, but also the largest watershed on the Great Lakes, stretching even up into parts of Northern Michigan; over 6,300 miles drains into the Maumee, and it’s estimated nearly two million people live in and rely on the Maumee River watershed. It’s also been the subject of three documentaries: The Fate of a River (1965); The Fate of a River 2 (2000)…

The latest is A Watershed Mentality, a 30-minute documentary created by PBS39 WFWA. The documentary, which was produced and directed by WFWA’s Ray Steup, premiers Thursday, June 28 at 10:30 pm, with an encore presentation Friday, June 29 at 7:30 pm.

A Watershed Mentality takes a look at the range and overall impact of activities along the Maumee River basin, and how practices along the watershed affect their lives and businesses, and have a major impact on practically everything in the entire watershed area. It takes a much different approach to its subject than the two older documentaries (neither of which was made by WFWA), explains Matt Jones, the film’s project manager, consultant, and co-writer. “Those films addressed what the EPA calls ‘point source pollution,’” says Jones, who also serves as the Water Resource Education Specialist for the Allen County Partnership for Water Quality. “Those were mostly heavy metals and direct pollution contaminants cause by singularly identifiable entities, whether it’s the government, a factory, or even individuals, like somebody’s little shop by the river that decided to dump their oil down the drain.”

A Watershed Mentality tackles a much more insidious problem: how pervasive soil erosion and sediment creeps into to practically every aspect of life — human, animal, and otherwise — in the Maumee River basin. These are from non-point sources, meaning it’s impossible to tell where, for example, that particular stretch of phosphorus in the river came from. It could be coming from your lawn because you applied fertilizer just before a rainfall, it could be coming from your neighbor’s yard because they threw out the mop water, it could be coming off a farmer’s field because of excessive nutrient application.

Jones says they wanted to generate the interest of the casual person, the non-environmentalist, in the watershed, and help them develop a better understanding as to why water quality is important and what exactly soil erosion and sediment lead to. To do this, they used what Jones calls an “economical viewpoint,” drawing the line between where we are as consumers, residents, and landowners, and our cause and effect on the natural system and the people down stream, or even ourselves. “The addition of soil erosion and sediment into the Maumee River basin leads to impairment of what you would expect on natural habitats, of course, but that also impacts recreational fisherman,” says Jones. “The same sort of impairment leads to excess phosphorous getting into the waterways because it attaches itself to the soil particles, and that creates algae blooms, which impairs any kind of water recreation on Lake Erie, including swimming. Also, anybody who hunts… guess where the animals you’re hunting are getting their water from?”

Another aspect of soil erosion and sediment that residents of the Fort Wayne area are all too familiar with: flooding. Soil erosion means loss of flood plain which leads to higher volumes running through the river, which leads to more erosion, which leads to an increase in the amount of money we need to spend of infrastructure like road maintenance, bridges, drains…

But rather than showing a completely dire, negative situation, A Watershed Mentality points to a possible solution by looking at how agriculture in the basin has gone to great lengths to correct the situation through conservation land management practices. “Because agriculture is still the 600 lbs gorilla in the Maumee River Basin, they’re a good example to use,” says Jones. “They’re very accessible, they own most of the land or at least manage most of the land, and they’ve also done the most improvement. So now (the solution) is not just on the rest of the farmers who aren’t following best practice, but also developers, residents, renters… you don’t have to own land to effect the water quality, and you don’t have to put on a pair of boots and gloves and go out to the riverbank in order to improve that water quality.”

The subject matter isn’t the only reason Jones wants people to tune into A Watershed Mentality. Director Ray Steup and his team shot the film digitally in a landscape format, or letterbox format, which gives the viewer a great feel for the locale and the sweeping vistas in the film. “There are scenes along the Maumee River that not all of us get a chance to see or notice as we’re driving through the watershed because we’re paying attention to the road and not to the river next to us,” Jones says. “Hopefully, this will encourage people to pull over to the side of the road and take in some of the beauty that is there and along our waterways, and maybe instill a bit of responsibility.”

A Watershed Mentality premiers Thursday, June 28 at 10:30 pm on PBS39, followed by an encore presentation on Friday, June 29 at 7:30 pm.

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