The Mill Creek touches over forty neighborhoods in the city of Cincinnati.
Twenty years ago, in some inner-city stretches of Mill Creek, the only living things you could find were blood worms, sludge worms, and leeches. In the summertime, fish kills were common. Carp that ventured into the stream from the Ohio River would flop onto the stream banks and die. Many species of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife vanished from the river corridor for over 100 years because their habitat and food sources had been destroyed by intense urbanization.
In 1992, the Ohio Department of Health determined that Mill Creek fish were unsafe to eat and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recommended no body contact with the water because of high levels of untreated sewage. A national group designated Mill Creek as the most endangered urban river in North America. Most people felt the Mill Creek was a hopeless cause.
Twenty one years ago, a small nonprofit (then named Mill Creek Restoration Project and now called Groundwork Cincinnati - Mill Creek), made a commitment against these manifestly long odds to bring Mill Creek back to life. The nonprofit recognized that it was undertaking a long march. Regenerating the river corridor and revitalizing economically distressed and historically underserved Lower Mill Creek neighborhoods would take generations.
Today, the city’s Mill Creek Greenway Program is the vehicle for implementing a comprehensive Mill Creek Healthy People/Healthy River Strategy that provides multiple public benefits. The premise of the strategy is that all City neighborhoods should be livable and sustainable, and that by definition livable and sustainable neighborhoods have healthy natural resources and healthy people living in them.
Capacity building is a key component of the strategy. To date, over 39,000 Green Team youth in the Cincinnati Public School (CPS) District and others have participated in year-round educational programming, using the Mill Creek as a living laboratory and participating in ecological service learning projects. Each year, students report peer-to-peer on what they’ve learned and recommend for the future. In CPS schools, about two-thirds of the students are African American and come from economically disadvantaged families.
The Mill Creek interdisciplinary environmental education program emphasizes both analytical and creative thinking and uses “hands on” learning experiences and an action research model (data collection, problem solving and action taking). Working with teachers, Groundwork Cincinnati provides a variety of classroom and fieldwork learning experiences that help empower young people by giving them real challenges and helping them develop skills to meet those challenges. In both the school-based program and in Groundwork’s summer Green Team youth employment program, participating students also learn about potential careers and career pathways.
To improve the river’s health, Groundwork, its partners and students, and over 9,000 adult volunteers have completed 33 wetland, streambank, and wildlife habitat projects. Thousands of trees have been planted, and derelict properties along almost five miles of the river have been transformed into public greenspace, trails, and edible forest gardens.
The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati is gradually reducing the volume of sewage discharged to Mill Creek. The City and Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority have cleaned up landfills and contaminated sites within the river corridor and the Mill Creek Watershed Council is encouraging planning and coordination among the 37 political jurisdictions in the drainage basin. These efforts, coupled with Groundwork’s intensive work to create, restore, and connect wildlife habitat, are beginning to pay off.
Today, life has returned to the Mill Creek. Great blue heron and black-crowned night heron fish in the creek. Turtles, frogs, salamanders, beavers, muskrats, and many other species are back. The water quality is gradually improving. Mill Creek is becoming a major community asset and a place where people want to visit. Clearly, much more work is needed to restore full health to Mill Creek and wildlife habitat in the river corridor, but the progress to date is inspiring and provides a firm foundation for future improvements.
In 2009, Groundwork began work on the city’s Mill Creek Greenway Trail. The hike and bike trail provides opportunities for active transportation and outdoor exercise and recreation for Mill Creek neighborhood residents and visitors. For every dollar the city has invested, in any given year, Groundwork has raised $2 to $4 from its donors, the Clean Ohio Trail Fund, Interact for Health, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and Duke Energy Foundation.
So far, about five out of fifteen planned miles of trail have been constructed. When complete, the Mill Creek Trail will extend from the Hamilton County Fairgrounds in Carthage to the Ohio River, connecting to the future Price Landing Park and the Ohio River Trail.
Groundwork Cincinnati is deeply grateful to participating Mill Creek Neighborhood Councils who work every day to make their neighborhoods great, and to Groundwork’s donors and many diverse partners. We especially thank the 48,000 students and community volunteers who have helped with the heavy lifting of fieldwork. We have been privileged to work with them over the past two decades.
Together, we are creating a new legacy for the Mill Creek, for people and for wildlife. As a community, it’s something we can feel very proud of.
If you are interested in more Mill Creek history you may want to read The Mill Creek: An Unnatural History of and Urban Stream by Dr. Stanley Hedeen.
Do you touch the mill creek?
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