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MBI offers specialized expertise in aquatic and terrestrial biological assessment, monitoring, and technical evaluation. Our goal is to assist our clients toward better management, restoration, protection, and improvement of our nation’s natural resources. MBI also offers specialized training in aquatic resource ecology, evaluation, and restoration, as well as personalized training to meet the unique needs of individuals and organizations.
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MBI Releases New Primary Headwater Data

Author: Chris O. Yoder and Edward T. Rankin

Analysis of the Probabilities of the Classification of Small Headwater Streams as Primary Headwater Habitat (PHWH) and Warmwater Habitat (WWH) in Southwest Ohio

As part of a series of analyses of the attainability of aquatic life uses in small headwater streams in Ohio, MBI analyzed a regional dataset based on recent assessments in southwestern Ohio watersheds. Specifically this analysis focuses on small headwater streams that are at the “boundary” of watershed sizes between Primary Headwater Habitat (PHWH) and Warmwater Habitat (WWH) streams as each is defined and designated by Ohio EPA. Ohio EPA developed the PHWH methodology as a technique for evaluating and classifying the existing uses of small headwater streams that do not harbor fish assemblages capable of meeting the biocriteria for the WWH use designation as codified in the Ohio WQS (Ohio EPA 2002a). While there is no watershed size threshold that can accurately predict whether a stream will be capable of supporting either PHWH or WWH, “rules-of-thumb” have emerged and generally include a 1.0 mi.2 threshold for screening purposes. Some of these thresholds are being considered for routine use in regulatory applications such as 404 Nationwide Permits and without the benefit of vetting with actual site-specific monitoring data. One major problem is that biological and habitat data sufficient to determine the difference between PHWH and WWH (or any of the other Ohio aquatic life use tiers) is generally not collected in streams of this size thus leaving a significant knowledge gap to determine whether or not such rules-of-thumb are accurate or appropriate.

As part of intensive watershed monitoring conducted in the greater Hamilton County area of southwest Ohio, MBI routinely includes sufficient biological and habitat data collection in small headwater streams with some sites <0.5 mi.2 in drainage area. Furthermore, data was collected in a manner that allowed for a determination of whether a stream had the potential to attain one of the WWH aquatic life use tiers or if the existing use is more appropriately PHWH. This was performed at any stream site of <2.5 mi.2 based on the early Ohio EPA studies that resulted in the development of the PWHW classification scheme (Ohio EPA 2002b). Since 2011 a total of 96 stream sites of <0.5-2.5 mi.2 were sampled following this approach in the Mill Creek, Little Miami River, and Great Miami River study areas (Table 1). A fourth study area that includes similarly sized tributaries to the Ohio River mainstem were sampled in 2014, but those results have not yet been analyzed. The determination of the appropriate and attainable use designation was performed by Level 3 Qualified Data Collectors under project study plans approved by Ohio EPA. The techniques of data analysis and assignments of aquatic life use designations are the same as that practiced by Ohio EPA1 . Table 1 summarizes the results of this analysis.

1 Watershed assessment reports are available at: http://www.msdgc.org/initiatives/water_quality/index.html

The results are reported in 0.5 mi.2 increments of drainage area and by each of the three major watershed areas and as a total across all areas. The number of sites in each drainage area panel, the number that were assigned the WWH use designation, and the number that were assigned to the PHWH existing use classification are depicted in Table 1. The PHWH existing use assignments are further stratified as PHWH Class 1, 2, and 3. The attainment status of the WWH designated sites are indicated as full/partial/non-attainment in terms of observed attainment of the attendant numeric biocriteria for fish and macroinvertebrates.

Table 1. Results of the analysis of 96 small headwater stream sites of <0.5-2.5 mi.2 in southwest Ohio for the Primary Headwater Habitat (PHWH) existing use classification or the Warmwater Habitat (WWH) use designation.

Overall, 53 of the 96 sites (55.2%) were designated as having WWH potential either because the biological results indicated attainment of the WWH biocriteria or the habitat assessment indicated WWH potential even though the biological data indicated partial or non-attainment. The remaining 43 sites were classified as PHWH existing use Class 1, 2, or 3. More than one-half (53.5%) of these sites were classified as PHWH 3A which means that aquatic salamanders and sufficient macroinvertebrate taxa were observed. Seventeen (17) sites were classified as PHWH 2 (lacking salamanders) and only 3 sites as PHWH Class I, which is due to ephemeral flows, but which retain sufficient channel characteristics. None of the 96 sites were considered to warrant designation as Limited Resource Waters (LRW), although this use designation applies to some larger and highly modified stream segments in the Mill Creek and Little Miami study areas. At least one formerly designated LRW headwater stream segment was changed to PHWH as a result of the focused watershed assessments. In this case, the LRW designation was based on an upstream extrapolation from a single sampling site located downstream. This example illustrates the importance of having sufficient data collection and spatial resolution in the sampling design. PHWH existing use classifications were more frequent in the smaller drainage area panels and were included in all of the drainage area panels. WWH was assigned in all of the panels including those <0.5 mi.2 and <1.0 mi.2.

These results demonstrate that applying a simple “rule-of-thumb” such as 1.0 mi.2 as the size limitation for the WWH designation would have resulted in the erroneous classification and/or designation of 22 of 47 sites draining <1.0 mi.2 (46.8%). It also illustrates that simply extrapolating uses to apply to the upstream reaches of a stream has the potential for similar error propagation. Sufficient data collection and spatial scale resolution are both needed to avoid making errors in applying policies and permitting in small headwater streams. This means that for streams with permanent water and especially those with flow should require data collection that meets the provisions of the Ohio WQS and Ohio EPA methods. In such cases this will need to include the collection of fish, macroinvertebrates, and salamanders along with the QHEI as the principal habitat assessment (HHEI can be extracted from a QHEI). This promotes sound data as driving the decisions about designated and existing uses in small headwater streams. These results should be applicable beyond southwestern Ohio to similar topographies in the rest of Ohio.


Ohio EPA. 2002a. Field Evaluation Manual for Ohio’s Primary Headwater Habitat Streams. Final Version 1.0. Division of Surface Water, Columbus, OH. 60 pp.

Ohio EPA. 2002b. Ohio EPA Primary Headwater Habitat Initiative Data Compendium, 1999-2000 Habitat, Chemistry, and Stream Morphology Data. Division of Surface Water, Columbus, OH. 23 pp. + appendices.

Wetlands, Headwater Streams, and Nutrients

Author: Pete Precario

It seems that every day we hear new stories of nuisance algal blooms, Microcystis cyanobacteria and water borne toxins causing our water supply to be unpleasant and unsafe to drink and making recreation impossible. This is no small or isolated problem. Grand Lake St. Mary’s near Celina, Ohio has made news and suffered from a number of toxic algal blooms making the water unsafe for years and causing substantial monetary loss to the recreational uses of the water. The latest and most unnerving story is in Lake Erie. While Lake Erie has suffered from staggering algal blooms for many years now, it wasn’t until the water supply for the City of Toledo was shut down that many people began to recognize the magnitude of the problem that has been right in front of us for a long time. It wasn’t until more than 400,000 people discovered that their water was unsafe that the issue made headline news across the state and the entire country. The fishing, boating and recreational business in the western basin of Lake Erie have lost large amounts of money resulting from the massive blooms for a number of years now. In virtually every algal bloom crisis we’ve seen the cause is the same – nutrient contamination. There are a number of sources of nutrient contamination. The same fertilizers that lead to bumper crops and beautiful green lawns on land lead to bumper crops of algae. The run-off of animal wastes from confined feeding facilities and pens add tons of nutrients to our waterways. Nutrients, mostly phosphorus and nitrogen, when applied to lawns, farm fields or stored on site are very vulnerable to being washed off and finding their way into some of our most significant water ways ultimately ending in Lake Erie and the Ohio River. The result is a massive and explosive growth of algae on a scale that is hard to imagine if you have never seen it. Nutrients carried by the Ohio River to the Mississippi have contributed to the loss of oxygen or hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. How have we gotten to a point where these blooms and anoxic conditions seem to be a perennial problem with no solution in sight? Are we in a world where we must simply learn to live with this cycle of contamination? The answer is a definite no! There are significant steps we can take to reduce nutrient contamination and help clean-up our waterways. One common characteristic of most, if not all, of these nutrient contamination producing areas is the large scale loss of functioning wetlands and headwater stream systems. This in turn allows large volumes of nutrient rich water to quickly reach our lakes and “fertilize” the algal blooms we now experience regularly. Not only has northwestern Ohio lost its historic Black Swamp wetlands but, in more recent times, we have destroyed and continue to destroy significant wetland areas by draining and developing them and then simply redirecting the nutrient contaminated waters directly into rivers and lakes. Instead of the nutrients leisurely travelling through wetlands and being consumed and retained by natural processes we have blindly constructed veritable waterway super highways, speeding the contaminating nutrients into our lakes. This is as true for Buckeye Lake and Grand Lake St. Mary’s as it is for Lake Erie. We have all heard the analogy that wetlands are the “kidneys” of our water ways. This is a case where the continued loss of wetlands and headwater streams has severely damaged or removed our “kidneys” and we are now paying the price for that neglect and short-sightedness. We need to take significant steps to get back to a more natural, balanced system that will protect our waters and restore the biological integrity of our waterways. Clearly we need to begin to control the deposition of nutrients on land and to develop management practices that minimize runoff and contamination. But this is not enough. In addition we need to renew our efforts to not only protect our existing wetlands and headwater streams but to also begin to restore and rehabilitate our historic and valuable wetlands to their natural functions. We need to rethink and redesign drainage ditches to stop the rapid transportation of water. The key function of nutrient reduction can be readily restored to the streams and wetlands which can once again provide serious nutrient reduction in our water ways before it reaches our lakes and large rivers. A natural stream with a healthy habitat, stream bed and a connection to its flood plain can provide a substantial amount of nutrient reduction. Likewise, a healthy, functioning wetland can sequester vast amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that would otherwise travel directly into our lakes only to fuel yet another devastating algal bloom. We have neglected and avoided dealing with this problem for far too long. It is time to take a serious look at this situation and take the important steps needed to get us back to normal.
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2014 Training Season Wraps Up

MBI continues to offer specialized training in aquatic Bioassessment. We hosted the following courses during 2014:

  • Ohio Rapid Assessment Method (ORAM) for Wetlands
  • Vegetation Index of Biotic Integrity (VIBI)
  • Identification of Common Wetland Plants
  • Primary Headwater Habitat (PHWH) Training
  • Level 2 and 3 Ohio Credible Data Training, Fish and Macroinvertebrate specialties

  • We also provided a variety of personalized training to multiple organizations.

    We are planning to expand our educational offerings for the 2015 season, and will begin posting our courses in October of this year. Visit the training tab for complete details. As always, we can also work with your organization to develop personalized courses that will meet your unique training needs.

    Phone: (614) 457-6000 Office: 4673 Northwest Parkway, Hilliard, OH 43026