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Big Darby Creek Added to ‘Most Endangered’ List

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Big Darby Creek Added to ‘Most Endangered’ ListPhoto by Jesse Bethea.
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American Rivers, a national environmental advocacy organization, has identified Big Darby Creek as one of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers for the year 2019. The American Rivers report lists the potential for development and urban sprawl in the Darby watershed as the primary threats to the creek’s ecosystem.

The Big Darby Creek is a waterway of remarkable biodiversity, home to at least 43 different species of freshwater mussels. There are more species of mussels in Big Darby Creek than all of Europe. A number of those species are also listed as rare, threatened or endangered by the state and federal governments. The creek is recognized as both an Ohio Scenic River and a National Scenic River.

Darby Creek Association president John Tetzloff said the endangered river listing will hopefully create, “increased awareness and increased commitment by area jurisdictions to figure out how to manage new development and still protect the creek.”

This is not the first time Big Darby Creek has found itself on the same list. American Rivers declared it one of the most endangered rivers in 2004, at that time also identifying development and urban sprawl as culprits in the creek’s environmental degradation. 

“Once parking lots, roads, rooftops, and turf grass occupy a sufficient percentage of any given watershed,” wrote American Rivers in 2004, “increased stormwater runoff ruins the natural dynamics of local streams. Rain and snow that once soaked into the ground race into storm drains instead — causing more floods and more pollution.”

Two years later, the Big Darby Accord, a unique multi-jurisdictional agreement, came into effect. For 13 years the Accord has helped control development in the Darby watershed to prevent runoff, pollution and other environmental hazards. But the Accord might have been buoyed by an adverse economic climate that hampered development for the last decade.

“When 2008 hit, the Great Recession, housing almost stopped,” said Tetzloff. “But since the economy has improved, all of the sudden, there’s a major push into the watershed. It’s a big potential area for development, because there’s not much development right now. Land’s really cheap, so there’s a lot of interest. There’s a plan in place in Franklin County to control and shape development, but there’s no plan in any of the other counties.”

The Darby Creek Accord applies only to Franklin County, but the Big Darby watershed stretches into five other counties — Logan, Champaign, Union, Madison and Pickaway. Without a watershed protection agreement in these counties, “developers are suddenly attempting to leapfrog this barrier and develop thousands of acres of farmland to the west that is unprotected by the provisions of the Accord,” according to American Rivers.

In particular, the American Rivers report identifies the potential extension of sewer service by the City of Columbus into the Plain City area and planned residential and industrial development in West Jefferson as new dangers to the creek’s fragile ecology.

For Tetzloff, the “most endangered” listing is an unfortunate, but necessary, development.

“I think it needed to make the list, but it’s disappointing that it warrants being on the list,” said Tetzloff. “I mean, ten rives in America. You know how many thousands of rivers there are? They’ve identified us as being under threat, so it needs to be out there. Nothing’s gonna fix itself.”

The American Rivers report was not all bad news for Ohio. 50 years after catching fire and sparking the national environmental movement, the Cuyahoga River has recovered enough from its polluted past to be named as the organization’s “River of the Year.”

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