By DAVE KITCHELL
Pharos-Tribune staff writer
Last week, the largest private commitment to improving the Wabash River was unveiled at an Indiana State House ceremony.
The Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit organization, announced in a press conference with Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman that it had secured more than $370,000 in grant funding, most of which came from the Alcoa Corporation. It will be used to fund a new study that compiles data from previous studies on the Wabash, the Indiana state river. The Conservancy will use to target areas that should be improved along the Wabash, which runs through Cass, Carroll and Miami counties in the Logansport area.
“The Wabash River is a really unique river in that it actually has very good qualities as far as the water quality goes,” said Larry Clemens, assistant state director for Conservation Programs for the conservancy.
“There are dozens of rare and unique species of fish and fresh water mussels that occur in the river and its fresh water tributaries. Our interest in the Wabash and particularly with this assessment is to learn where these species occur,” he said.
“As our organization works in the Wabash Basin, we can prioritize where the most effective use of our program dollars can be done.”
Clemens said previous studies have never been compiled in a way that provides a picture of what the entire Wabash is like. The conservancy is in the process of issuing a request for proposals for a consultant that will perform the study.
“I would think by early April we would have one selected,” he said.
“It was something we wanted to do. We’ve been working on the Tippecanoe River which is a tributary to the Wabash for about five years now.
“There are so many groups that are interested in the Wabash and we’re looking forward to partnering with the existing efforts being made.”
Clemens said the study will allow the conservancy to work with farmers if necessary to determine if buffering in some areas along the river is needed.
Improving the Wabash has become a two-pronged problem.
The first prong is funding. Mercedes Brugh, Cass County’s representative on the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, said the funding for river improvements in the counties along the basin has dried up.
“The Wabash River Heritage Corridor Fund got $5 million in 1999. In fact, from 1991 to 1999, we as a fund received money out of every budget. It started out modest and it increased every year up until 1999 when the fund received $5 million. We were slated for $4 million in 2001. It was in the budget. It was passed, but it never materialized.”
Since then, state budgets have failed to include money for improving the state river.
Brugh said it has been the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ goal to spread out state projects along the counties on the Wabash, which include Cass, Carroll and Miami in the Logansport area. To date, $7.8 million in state funding has led to 59 projects that represent $13.4 million in investment since the corridor was established in the 1990s. The money has been spent in part on projects in Cass and Carroll counties, including the trail along the Wabash at France Park in western Cass.
The second prong of the Wabash problem came last year when the state received word the Wabash did not comply with standards in the federal Clean Water Act. Public hearings on water quality in the basin were held in Logansport and other cities. The state is in the process of coming up with a plan to improve water quality and bring the state river in compliance with federal standards.
The Conservancy, which already operates an office in Winamac for the base of its operations on the Tippecanoe, is planning to extend much of its work on the Tippecanoe to the Wabash.
“We have two staff there. They’re working with area farmers and conservation practices,” Clemens said.
“They’re working with all the local, state and federal agencies. We’re also working with the Indiana Department of Agriculture in implementing a conservation reserve enhancement program. What that program does is offer additional special incentives to landowners.”
Chad Watts, who is a staff member in Winamac, said the Conservancy is trying to protect the aquatic qualities of the communities along the Tippecanoe.
“In the Tippy, we’ve already gotten to the point where we understand what’s out there and we’re working to protect those things.”
One of the significant environmental facets of the Tippecanoe is the number of mussel communities.
“It was recently ranked as the 8th most important system in North America,” he said.
The river has six federally endangered species and 21 that considered at-risk, he said.
“There are two keystone species that we are really looking at. There’s the club shell mussel above Shafer and Freeman and downstream from Freeman northern riffle shell species. We focused on the upper part of the river to start with, but we’ve monitored seven sites.”
The Wabash has more large river species than the Tippecanoe, he said.
A gift to the Conservancy last year has enabled it to acquire land and manage it to improve environmental quality, he said. Much of the work that has been done along the Tippy does not involve land purchases. Projects are designed to reduce sediment inputs, protect flood plains and wetlands.
Ron James, executive director of the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, said he has not seen the information about the Conservancy’s plan.
“We really need to get into their grant application to really see where they’re going with this,” he said.
“We were very pleased. Nature Conservancy is certainly a worthwhile group to handle this sort of thing. I think this will help the Wabash in the long run.”
Dave Kitchell may be contacted at (574) 732-5150, or via e-mail at email@example.com
By DAVE KITCHELL
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