Every river could use a friend. The Wabash River has a good one in Rae Schnapp, the Wabash Riverkeeper.
As riverkeeper, Schnapp acts as spokesperson for the river and its tributaries. She maintains a voice for river health, restoration and enhancement, and she monitors the river and holds polluters accountable if they break the law.
Schnapp, who has a doctorate in agriculture from Purdue University, has been the Wabash Riverkeeper for five years and the water and agriculture policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) for 15 years. The two jobs overlap. HEC belongs to the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international grassroots organization with waterkeeper programs around the world. Schnapp also is responsible for the development of HEC’s Bean Blossom Creek Watershed Management Plan.
The Wabash and its tributaries drain two-thirds of Indiana land. The watershed covers 24,000 square miles, and it faces myriad threats.
"PCBs are often said to be a legacy pollutant coming from historic sources that no longer exist."
Fish are at risk, Schnapp said. Sediment washes into the river from soil erosion and settles on the river bottom, where it disrupts fishes' reproductive cycles, since they like to lay eggs on rocky bottoms free of sediment. Sediment carries pesticides that clog their gills.
Mercury from Indiana's many coal-fired power plants contaminante the river. Indiana derives 96 percent of its electricity from coal.
Yet another threat are PCBs (polychorinated biphenyls). "PCBs," Schnapp says, "are often said to be a legacy pollutant coming from historic sources that no longer exist." Two hot spots that affect the river are a dump associated with the old Continental Steel plant in Kokomo and a ditch behind the Alcoa plant in Lafayette.
River contamination also comes from human sewage and manure from large, industrial farming operations. Sewage and manure carry bacterial pathogens, among them E. coli.
Sewage enters the Wabash and its tributaries from various sources. "First," Schnapp says, "cities are not required to treat sewage to kill disease organisms from the end of October through the beginning of April, because this is outside the recreational season." City sewers can overflow when it rains. In rural areas, old farmhouses often discharge their sewage directly into streams. "The septic systems of newer houses can discharge sewage to streams if they are not installed or maintained properly," Schnapp notes. "Both situations are illegal but very common and difficult to detect."
Human sewage is responsible for only 8 percent of the bacterial load, Schnapp points out. Manure is the "largest load the river carries" and contains pathogens that are very similar to those in human sewage.
Solutions are available, Schnapp says.
Bioremediation of chemically contaminated soil uses microbes to detoxify the soil.
"River contamination also comes from human sewage and manure from large, industrial farming operations."
Methane digesters are anaerobic organisms that digest pathogens and can produce biofuel (methane and carbon dioxide). Methane can power a generator and produce electricity. It's a "win-win" situation: the digesters can treat livestock manure and can pay for themselves by producing fuel. Methane digesters are "rather common at larger wastewater plants," Schnapp says.
Ozone treatment can disinfect wastewater, as can chlorine, but ozone lacks chlorine's propensity to form dioxins when exposed to some other pollutants. And it's cost-effective. Another treatment for wastewater is ultraviolet light.
The sediment problem could be addressed by allowing cattle to pasture, or feed on grass, rather than raising them in industrial feedlots. The soil washes away from corn and soybeans, which are planted heavily in Indiana, whereas grass stabilizes it. Schnapp acknowledges that pasturing cattle is a distant remedy and depends on consumer demand for grass-fed beef.
The key to eliminating mercury contamination of the Wabash is moving from coal-fired power plants to renewable energy. Indiana will have to make the switch anyway to alleviate climate change, to which coal burning contributes heavily. Currently the Wabash, like all other Indiana rivers, carries warnings about eating the fish because of the mercury that concentrates in them.
What makes polluters reluctant to use the available solutions is fear of losing profits and a corporate culture of reluctance to try new activities, Schnapp says.
Corporate polluters find the cheapest method of disposing of pollutants is to flush them into our rivers. It's legal to discharge pollutants in rivers at certain levels. "And dischargers are usually allowed to mix their wastewater with stream water so that dilution can help them achieve [legal] standards," she says.
One of Schnapp's jobs is field testing the river's water quality. HEC can't afford the more expensive lab tests, but when Schnapp detects contamination at an illegal level, she informs the appropriate state or federal agency. That could be the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (which maintains a spill hotline for emergencies), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (if fish are at risk), the Indiana Department of Natural Resources or a little-known office, the Indiana State Chemist's (which handles manure and pesticides).
"Sewage and manure carry bacterial pathogens, among them E. coli."
Since Schnapp can't be in multiple places at once, she relies on citizen volunteers to monitor the river and its tributaries and to inform her of irregularities they detect. Volunteers can test the water quality with a simple kit after a day or two of free training. That way volunteers can also document the runoff from factory farms, the main source of E. coli in the river.
Monitoring can be as simple as "keeping your eyes open," and reporting to Schnapp if the river is an unnatural color, giving off an unnatural odor, carrying trash or receiving illegal discharges.
Every year Schnapp organizes a series of cleanups of the river and its tributaries called "De-trash the Wabash." Recently she collaborated with Purdue in a cleanup event that attracted 800 volunteers. "It helps to get people out there and experience the river and see the challenges and potential," Schnapp told HEC's newsletter, Invironment. Cleaning up the Wabash also "builds appreciation" for the river.
"The big challenge," Schnapp says, is the need for "a change in attitude." Traditionally, people have used rivers as dumps, to "wash away their garbage" rather than protecting and preserving them.
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.
For more information
- To report a problem with the Wabash or its tributaries or to learn how to monitor the water quality, contact Schnapp at or call 317-685-8800, ext. 116.
- Schnapp can help volunteers identify important areas to test, typically near factory farms. Click here to download maps of these sites.
- If you have GoogleEarth, which you can download for free, you can view a much more detailed map.