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In 1992 the Ohio EPA knew that Mill Creek was in trouble when their first chemical and biological survey uncovered raw sewage driving levels of bacteria and viruses well beyond federal and state water pollution levels.  Findings showed heavy metals, lead, organic compounds, pesticides, ammonia, zinc, copper, cadmium and chromium.  By 1997 American Rivers, a national river conservation group, named Mill Creek as "the most endangered urban river in North America".

That was then and this is now.  Now, after one agency, two non-profits and a host of other partners turned what once was a cesspool and a blight into a renewal of the river, a greening of the banks, an edible forest garden in the midst of a food desert, a rotating art exhibit featuring local sculptors, and most notably the "Freedom Trees Program" which is in the process of planting 10,000 native hardwood trees intended to honor the Underground Railroad with its' connections to Mill Creek.

Map showing the 37 political jurisdictions through which the Mill Creek of Ohio flows through.
Let me begin by discussing watersheds. We are all living in a watershed and everything we do impacts the health of our particular watershed which in turn has a direct impact on our health and in the larger sense, our future which is linked to the state of our watershed.  A watershed is defined by all the land that drains to the same body of water, like a lake or river.  That smaller body of water then drains into a larger body such as a larger lake or river or the ocean.  

All of our rain or storm water will either run off immediately or will be absorbed and filtered through our soil, much of which will eventually drain into the next larger body of water and so on.  Think about this for a moment, all the water that runs off the surface of our lands picks up all pollution therein and carries that on to the next body of water.

The Cincinnati Mill Creek's headwaters is located in Butler County and flows 28 miles south, covering 37 political jurisdictions, to its confluence with the Ohio River which is located west of downtown Cincinnati  (click here for a larger image which will open in a new tab).

Named Maketewa by Native Americans, settlers in the 1800s changed the stream's name to Mill Creek in hopes of attracting just that which would eventually nearly kill it. Paper mills, wool mills, flour mills and factories soon sprouted up as the creek began providing a form of transport, sometimes for southern slaves escaping to the safety of northern states.  Along with the years of continued development came deforestation and pollution contributing to devastating floods in 1959, 1998 and 2001.

The Army Corps of Engineers arrived in the 1960s providing a project for flood control, but had to abandon the unfinished work in 1991 due to costs.

The three major players in turning the health and future of Mill Creek around were:

Millcreek Valley Conservancy District: An agency created in 1962 to serve as a liaison for the Army Corps of Engineers and to raise funds for use in acquiring and managing the land and rights of way for the Corp's project(s).

Groundwork Cincinnati (formerly Mill Creek Restoration Project): Organized in 1994 as a non-profit, mostly volunteer advocacy group with a focus on environmental restoration, education and recreation.

Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities: A non-profit founded in 1995 with the intent to serve as a consensus-building engine among watershed stakeholders to make the Mill Creek Watershed a better place to live, work and play.

Home to nearly half a million people, covering 166 square miles and spanning 37 communities, the restoration of Mill Creek provided a daunting task, but knowledge that the health of the watershed was directly tied to the future of Cincinnati, dozens of projects began taking shape. Now, two decades later the vision, planning, implementation, funding and hard physical work is blossoming into a model for transformation.

Fish sculptures in Laughing Brook at Salway Park, Cincinnati, Ohio that serve to filter storm water run off, cleaning it before it is released into Mill Creek.
Perhaps the centerpiece is the Greenway project with an ambitious vision to transform the Mill Creek watershed into a greenway system that would revitalize surrounding neighborhoods and communities, eliminate blight, stimulate the economy, create jobs, and regenerate the river's health.  At the same time providing outdoor exercise and recreation with the trails and bike paths, all the while incorporating green technologies with solar powered and energy efficient lighting and utilizing recycled materials for bike racks, benches, picnic tables, fencing and signs.  

Laughing Brook Wetlands and Public Art Project is located within Spring Grove Village's Salway Park. Artist Jackie Brookner created a series of biosculptures - hands and fish - which serve to filter stormwater runoff from the surrounding parking lots, sidewalks and ball fields, cleansing the water before it can enter Mill Creek.

The Caldwell Park Project stabilized 175 linear feet of streambanks, planted vegetation and installed a paved walking path.  

All along the greenway, community gardens have been planted along with fruit trees providing fresh, healthy food for the residents who reside in an urban desert.  The garden also is a celebration of art.

Jonathan Sears, executive director of Professional Artistic Research Projects in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood, and community volunteer Lennell Myricks Jr. spent a recent 90-degree morning hoeing rows of recently planted corn in an acre-size maze. Regional sculptors will donate works to be placed throughout the corn maze; when the corn grows tall, people will come upon the works by surprise as they search for the way out.

“Long after the corn is gone, the art will be here,” said Sears. “And people will be able to snack on the other things that are growing.”

A sign detailing the Freedom Trees project in the Mill Creek Greenway of Cincinnati, Ohio.  The sign reads:  
"These native hardwood trees are planted here in memory of the thousands who escaped from slavery to freedom along the Mill Creek and in gratitude to all the courageous people who helped them. Now, we are creating a new legacy of hope and health for the Mill Creek"
Besides reforesting Mill Creek, the Freedom Trees Program has planted 10,000 four to eight feet tall native hardwood trees as a way to honor the cultural history of Mill Creek in the Underground Railroad System.  Both white and freed blacks living along the Mill Creek watershed served as freedom conductors and provided food, clothing, shelter and transportation assistance to fugitive slaves.
The Freedom Tree program connects our history with our hope for the future. The act of planting a tree is a profound expression of hope and optimism. Planting ten thousand trees along the banks of the Mill Creek is a beautiful tribute to the men, women, and children who walked here, and whose spirit and struggle are celebrated by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.   ~ Groundwork Cincinnati
I think even the most cynical among us would have trouble not finding hope and encouragement with this environmental project.  Still far from being complete, Mill Creek is working.  As Michael Miller, an emeritus University of Cincinnati biologist who has been deeply involved with restoring the creek, said in a 2010 article, Mill Creek: What's the plan?:
"Listen," Miller said. Birds sang. "That's how you can tell this is working," he said. "Animals are living here."
 photo tinysworl-1-1.jpg

 If you are interested in locating your own watershed, go to this US Geological Survey Tutorial Page where simple step-by-steps instructions will lead you directly to your watershed address.  Once at your own watershed address a wealth of information is provided including water quality data, citizen based groups working within the area, environmental websites working within the location, watersheds upstream and downstream to name just a few.

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