For decades, the waterways of central Ohio were badly polluted.
Supporters of Big Walnut Creek, with the help of an Otterbein University researcher, are out to prove that the creek now is a healthy, thriving waterway that plays home to a bevy of mussel species.
"We hope to learn more about the health of the system and be able to, I hope, build some support for some positive step in the upper watershed for some protection," said Dan Binder, a longtime member of Friends of Big Walnut Creek and Tributaries.
The conservation group hired Otterbein professor Michael Hoggarth, an expert on freshwater mussels, to conduct a scientific survey of the mussel species in Big Walnut Creek, from the Hoover Reservoir running downstream.
The hope, Binder said, is that Hoggarth's research will prove there are many mussel species, including endangered species, living within the creek and helping to feed mussels into the Scioto River, which once was too polluted to support mussels.
Friends of Big Walnut became interested in looking at the mussel population in the waterway after Hoggarth gave a talk to the group about freshwater mussel about two years ago, Binder said.
"He saw some incidents of good diversity of mussels, and anecdotally, fishermen reported that there's good fish, and those two things are tied together. Mussels utilize fish to help their population spread," Binder said. "He said that there hadn't been any good comprehensive survey of Big Walnut. ... He called the Big Walnut the hidden gem because we don't know that much about it."
Binder said the group interviewed Hoggarth for a newsletter about six months ago to follow up on his talk and found he would be on sabbatical for Otterbein's fall term.
Hoggarth said he would be interested in conducting a survey of the Big Walnut and offered to do it at a low rate for the group.
With funds from its own treasury and a grant from the Columbus Foundation, Friends of Big Walnut was able to commission the survey.
Hoggarth and Otterbein graduate student Michael Grumney began their survey of the creek last month, and so far, have found endangered and threatened species of mussels.
The survey bodes well for the creek, as mussels can speak volumes about water quality, Hoggarth said.
"Mussels are a good water quality indicator. If water quality is poor, mussels will die. They're a large-bodied animal. They need a lot of oxygen; they need good water quality," Hoggarth said. "We're pretty concerned about water quality in Big Walnut Creek and other places because we drink it."
As he's worked, Hoggarth said he's met with people along the waterway who thought mussels were an animal of the creek's past.
People should be aware of the mussels' presence and of how special it is in Ohio, Hoggarth said.
"They were going in the wrong direction for a long, long time, and it's taken a long time for them to catch back up," Hoggarth said of central Ohio's mussel population. "There are mussels in Ohio waterways. We have 80 species of mussels in Ohio. Many are quite rare, and many times they are more common in central Ohio water streams than anywhere else in the world."
Binder said he hopes awareness will bolster conservation efforts along the creek, particularly when it comes to creating conservation easements in its undeveloped areas.
"I think it's going to help get the word out that it's an important creek and that it's definitely worthwhile to conserve," Binder said.