Altering release of water could help Wabash River

Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

October 8, 2009

A stretch of the Wabash River through northern Indiana could become significantly healthier in just a few short years by releasing water from reservoirs to simulate heavy rains, says a Ball State University professor.

Mark Pyron, a biology professor and staff member of Ball State's Aquatic Biology and Fisheries Center, is participating in a project that will modify reservoir operations of the Roush, Salamonie and Mississinewa reservoirs next fall in order to partially restore the watershed's natural water flow.

"The three flood control dams have changed the number of fish and insects that inhabit the waterways because water now has a constant flow at some times of the year to control flooding," Pyron said. "This has created water flow patterns that differ substantially from those in which river organisms have evolved.

"We now find a lot of poor quality sediment buildup in these areas. These waters are not dead, but they aren't exactly teeming with life. It's not only because of sediment. Many locations have lots of silt, and there is buildup of chemical runoff from adjacent farmland."

Changing the Wabash River's water flow is based on a recommendation developed through collaboration of Ball State, Purdue University, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The Wabash River, a large tributary of the Ohio River with headwaters in western Ohio, is home to about 155 species of fish. The upper Wabash River has one mainstream reservoir at Roush and two additional reservoirs that are tributaries at Salamonie and Mississinewa. These three reservoirs were constructed in the 1960s for flood control.

Pyron was part of the group that reached a verbal agreement with the Louisville office of the Corps of Engineers to modify the water release protocol of the three reservoirs. A similar project was conducted by the Corps of Engineers in 1998 on the Green River in northern Kentucky.

"It was amazing to see the changes in the ecosystem of that area," he said. "It is a much healthier waterway today. We hope the same thing can be done along a stretch of the Wabash River in northern Indiana."

Like in Kentucky, Pyron believes, releasing water in large pulses from the reservoirs each fall would provide new sediments in upstream reaches and scour fine sediments at downstream sites. Sediments would be quickly replaced with gravel while silt and chemicals would dissipate. This would attract various species of fish, aquatic insects, mussels and other wildlife.

"I think that we'll see increased species richness in a short time," he said. "It should improve the waterways and become very attractive for economic development activities such as fishing, and there are several communities along the Wabash River, including Lafayette, that are planning to develop their waterfronts."

Pyron is currently seeking funding from various sources for a Ball State team to study how releasing water will impact animal life along the upper Wabash River.

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