By Dr. Patrick Lawrence
With the establishment of the main campus of the University of Toledo along Bancroft Street was the added feature of a major river. Over the last seventy years, the Ottawa River has received little attention in regards to campus planning, which is evidenced by the location of buildings and parking lots up against its banks. For many, the river has been seen and described as a “dirty ugly ditch”. In addition, following major flooding in the 1940s and 1950s, much of the river was dredged, straightened and leveed in order to protect from future hazards. As a campus and community we have turned our backs to the river, ignoring its unique and important ecological functions and untapped potential to enhance the University landscape.
Since 2005, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members have been working to address a wide range of issues and challenges associated with the 3,700 feet of the Ottawa River that passes through the main campus of the University of Toledo. Established by then President Dan Johnson, the President’s Commission on the River has spent that last nine years focusing on efforts in the areas of beautification, storm water improvements, natural areas and environmental improvements, overlooks and pathways, student involvement, education and public awareness, community outreach and engagement. Funded by grants and donors, the Commission has raised over $600,000 to support projects and activities aimed at improving the river. Several notable accomplishments have been achieved by the Commission in association with UT Facilities and Grounds and other university and community partners.
One of the early initiatives undertaken by the Commission was the establishment of the first rain gardens to be installed on the UT main campus. Rain gardens use native soils and plants to capture runoff from buildings, parking lots, walkways, and roof drains, slowing down and holding the water to allow for infiltration. Next to Lot 10 and the varsity tennis courts, several groups assisted the Commission with the design and build of the Carolyn Edwards Memorial Rain Garden with funding support from a local community foundation.
With assistance from the Toledo-Lucas County Rain Garden Initiative, the Mary Sue Cave Rain Garden was established near International House where roof storm drains were diverted into the garden as a means for natural soil absorption and potential filtration. Ongoing efforts from volunteers, including students, faculty, classes from environmental sciences and classes from the Honors College care for the gardens throughout the year. Additional support is provided by UT Grounds who continues to maintain and improve the rain gardens so their beauty can been enjoyed by all.
In 2011-2012, the local and state health departments, under the advisement of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, partially removed the advisories for fish consumption and human contact along the river within the City of Toledo. This included the signs on main campus which had been in place since the early 1990s. The Commission, along with many local groups and individuals had long advocated for this action based on an improved understanding of the river’s health and an assessment of new aquatic ecosystem data. A key event leading up to this decision was a community workshop the Commission held to discuss the signage. One outcome of this meeting was the removal of the yellow signs, which was applauded and has served as an important step in the positive progress made to the river. The removal of signage has also helped to improve public awareness of the Ottawa River and increase understanding of the river water and habitat conditions.
The Commission has established an annual “Celebrate the River Week” which is held each September and has consisted of a variety of events and activities, including a rubber duck race, scavenger hunt, video and poster displays in the Carlson Library, a student photography contest, walking tours, presentations, and news articles. This week ends each year with volunteers from the University participating in the community river and stream bank clean-up event Clean Your Streams, organized by Partners for Clean Streams Inc. As one of the main kickoff locations for the CYS event, UT involvement has grown from a small group effort to over 300 participants in recent years.
The efforts of these students, staff, faculty and citizens each year results in the removal of hundreds of bags full of garbage and debris, along with numerous large items from main campus, and nearby river sites in the City of Toledo, Village of Ottawa Hills, and along Swan Creek at the UT Health Science Campus. Student organizations including Habitat For Humanity, the Society for Environmental Education, and numerous sororities, fraternities and student groups come in large numbers participating each year and often winning various awards for their efforts.
The revocations to Savage Arena allowed for the placement of a river walkway and overlook outside that building. Fund raising efforts with the UT Foundation and annual 50th year alumni classes have resulted in the placement of several benches at a river overlook by the David Root traffic bridge. With the support of the President’s Office and Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, UT Facilities was able to establish the student river plaza between the Student Union and Carlson Library, where the tables, benches and interpretative signs have become a popular gathering place on warm days for members of the UT community.
The Commission has also hosted a number of public meetings and workshops on a variety of river topics of interest to students and others at the University but also the general public, covering issues such as water quality, storm water, and aquatic habitat. Presentations have been made to many UT classes and organizations, including student groups, faculty and the Board of Trustees. Members of the Commission have also been active participants in many local events and involved with efforts within the Toledo area and along the Ottawa River. This focus on shared challenges and concerns associated with the Ottawa River includes the major habitat restoration project recently completed by Partners for Clean Streams at the Boy Scout of America property at Camp Miakonda in Sylvania. Members of the commission were also involved with the removal of the Secor Dam near main campus in the Village of Ottawa Hills which was conducted by the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Local Governments (TMACOG) and Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). The Commission has worked with many local and regional agencies and groups – and attended meetings – concerning the Ottawa River including the Maumee Remedial Action Plan (RAP) Advisory Committee, Stormwater Coalition, and the TMACOG Environmental Council. The efforts undertaken on the main campus for the Ottawa River have also involved and engaged a number of key partners and collaborators including Ohio EPA, US EPA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, City of Toledo, Lucas County, TMACOG, Partners for Clean Streams, Toledo Public Schools, several University academic department and programs, and many other concerned citizens and professionals.
Numerous additional projects associated with the Ottawa River at UT are also supported by the Commission, including those undertaken by undergraduate and graduate students. Several student teams from the Civil Engineering senior design class have completed projects on topics ranging from proposals for new and renovated river bridges on main campus to projects involving storm water improvements. Students and faculty from environmental sciences have completed research on fish populations and aquatic habitat conditions and continue with regular monitoring and assessment efforts. Over thirty fish species have been collected and documented from the river on campus, including Steelhead (Rainbow Trout). Students have also been actively involved with many of the activities and events of the Commission including clean-up events and maintaining the rain gardens.
Starting in 2009, the Commission undertook the largest project to date with a proposal to undertake natural restoration improvements for both bank and aquatic habitat along the river. An education grant from the Stranahan Foundation provided an opportunity to engage science teachers and students from the Toledo Public School (TPS) Early College High School, located on the UT Scott Park campus, with the design and planning for aquatic habitat restoration within 900 feet of the river adjacent to Savage Arena. The project aim was to engage the high school students with involvement in the development of the project and provide them a forum to meet and learn about college degree options in environmental science. There was also opportunity for the students to interact with professionals working in the field from federal and state agencies, non-government organizations, and consultants. With additional planning support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) – Buffalo District, an initial site plan for the placement of several in-stream aquatic habitat structures was completed for the proposed project area in 2011 with plans to proceed to construction.
However, following a public meeting on the proposed restoration project, interest was expressed by several groups to encourage expanding the restoration concepts to include the entire 3,700 feet of the Ottawa River on main campus. With securing of additional project grants from Ohio EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Commission and project team proceeded to have the ACOE extend their design work for the other river sections on main campus. Final design work was completed by fall of 2011, and the first stage of construction was completed in July 2012 with the completion of a cutbank structure along 900 feet of the river bank adjacent to the UT Law School. The cutbank was deemed a necessary step due to the requirement to increase river water storage on campus following a potential one hundred year flood event. The building of the cutbank also provided an opportunity to remove over 4,000 square feet of construction debris placed there in the 1950s. Once completed the site was replanted with over 300 native plants. There are also future plans that will improve public access to the river with a walking path and benches at the site.
During the summer of 2013, further efforts of habitat restoration were underway. With the assistance of Partners for Cleans Streams – funded by a environmental jobs grant from the federal government – eight student workers spent ten weeks at UT removing large numbers of non-native invasive plant species along the river banks, most notably Tree of Heaven, Honeysuckle, and Buckthorn, and preparing access points for subsequent in-stream river habitat restoration work. In August 2013, Ecological Restoration Inc., undertook the placement of twelve habitat structures in the river using native wood materials and stone, plus an additional sixty single stone rocks. All of these structures provide shelter, resting, and potential nesting habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms found in the river. Over 700 native plants were placed along the river bank and in the water. Permanent information signage will be placed along the river on campus to educate the University community and visitors about the river and restoration efforts. Ongoing assessment and monitoring will be conducted to determine the impact of the work that has occurred.
As the Commission begins to close in on a decade of work, the potential opportunities remain exciting with great potential for continued improvements to the river on our campus. Future efforts will focus on addressing the serious challenges associated with the collection of surface storm water runoff from our buildings and parking lots. Currently, the stormwater is discharged directly into the Ottawa River. Ongoing and committed work to stop the continued appearance and expansion of the non-native invasive plants will also continue. Additionally, improvements to aging bridge structures will need be carried out and more overlooks will be developed, along with a planned river trail system. Due to the many improvements, there has been an increased use of the river as an outdoor classroom for our students, which furthers collaboration and public education surrounding the Ottawa River, such educational experiences will increase. Along with our community, collaborators, and University partners we all look forward to having our river gain its place as a signature piece of the University of Toledo for our current and future students and the community we all share.
Dr. Patrick Lawrence
Chair & Professor
Department of Geography and Planning
College of Languages, Literature and Social Sciences
and Chair, UT President’s Commission on the River