An important state nature preserve appears threatened by development. Over a year ago, Barnes Nursery in Huron dredged an irrigation channel to Lake Erie along the edge of Sheldon Marsh. Owners say once complete, it will actually replace lost wetland habitat. But some local residents and at least four government agencies don't agree. They want the preserve to be restored to its former state. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer brings us this report on the battle over Sheldon Marsh.
Karen Schaefer- Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve is the last remaining Ohio example of a Great Lakes coastal wetland. Located just a few miles to the west of Huron in Erie County, the preserve encompasses 330 acres of marsh, wetland forest and barrier beaches. Although the marsh is itself a mere remnant of a wetland that once covered the eastern end of Sandusky Bay, cattails and willow flourish here, along with kingfishers, egrets and, Blanding's turtles.
Last summer, rapidly dropping lake levels alarmed a growing Huron nursery business that has traditionally drawn water from the bay for its plants. Barnes Nursery sought and received a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a 1,500-foot long irrigation channel through the waters along the southern edge of the preserve. But neighboring landowners Pat Krebs and Pat Dwight were concerned about the channel's impact on the marsh. They organized Friends of Sheldon Marsh to protest the project.
Pat Krebs- The people involved went too quickly and didn't follow even the letter of the law in the permit.
Pat Dwight- This sort of thing, left as it is, is sort of like the proverbial camel's nose in the tent. The continual dredging, re-dredging of the channel to keep it open is going to continually re-disturb, over time, this environment.
KS- In fact, Sheldon Marsh contains Category III wetlands, the highest quality designated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Both the Ohio EPA and the Department of Natural Resources protested the project. A month later, the Corps asked Barnes Nursery to stop work on the channel and then rescinded the permit. Michael Montone is a biologist with the Corps regional office in Buffalo.
Sharon Barnes- Can we remove this? We could. But no nursery can operate without water. We're not looking to get off on this as cheap as we can. We're willing to give whatever we have to give to make sure everyone feels comfortable - and provide water for the plants.
KS- In fact, Barnes hired former Ohio State University biologist and Stone Lab director Charles Herdendorf to help re-design the project. Herdendorf says development had already caused changes to water flow in the marsh and robbed the barrier beach of sand, further imperiling the wetland. He claims the new plan will actually help to re-water the marsh and create new habitat.
Charles Herdendorf- When it dries it's a mud flat and really the only aquatic vegetation or marsh would be along this edge. The whole plan is to restore some of that hydrology, that water flow. All of this area here will become marshland. And that's the whole idea. I think the only way that we're going to be permitted to continue with the project is to have elements in that enhance the environment.
KS- But Stuart Lewis, who heads the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, is clear about the project's impact.
Stuart Lewis- With the dredging, that caused sediment to wash into the wetland areas of the preserve, which we know that sediment certainly can be a pollutant, they can cover spawning beds and emergent vegetation beds.
KS- In the last year, the U.S. EPA has also weighed in against Barnes' irrigation project. So has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which wants to protect potential nesting sites for the piping plover, a federally-endangered bird species. But the future is still unclear. Last month, the Corps held a public hearing on the Barnes' after-the-fact permit. 70 people testified and the Corps received more than a thousand comments from local residents. Even after the Corps issues its decision sometime this fall, the project must still pass water quality permitting by the Ohio EPA.
In the meantime, the irrigation project remains unfinished. Without anchoring plants, sediment from the dike continues to erode into the marsh. And with no connecting channel to Lake Erie, the nursery could run out of water come the dog days of August. At Sheldon Marsh, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.