Statewide Biological and Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment

Each year, Ohio EPA collects data from streams and rivers in five to seven areas of the state. A total of 400 to 450 sampling sites are examined, and each site is visited more than once. During these studies, Ohio EPA scientists collect chemical samples, examine and count fish and aquatic insects, and take measurements of the stream. There are three major objectives for the studies:
  • To determine how the stream is doing compared to goals assigned in the Ohio Water Quality Standards (WQS);
  • To determine if the goals assigned to the river or stream are appropriate and attainable; and
  • To determine if the stream’s condition has changed since the last time the stream was studied.

The data gathered by a field survey is processed, evaluated and synthesized in a biological and water quality report. The findings and conclusions of each biological and water quality study may factor into regulatory actions taken by Ohio EPA and are incorporated into Water Quality Permit Support Documents (WQPSDs), total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), State Water Quality Management Plans, the Ohio Nonpoint Source Assessment and the Ohio Water Resource Inventory (305[b] report). This information also provides the basis for the list of impaired and threatened waters required by Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act.

The data are also used to develop statewide goals for each of four beneficial uses: aquatic life, recreation, human health (fish contaminants) and public drinking water supply.


Five-Year Basin Approach

In 1990, Ohio EPA initiated an organized, sequential approach to monitoring and assessment termed the five-year basin approach. One of the principal objectives of this approach is to better coordinate the collection of ambient stream and river monitoring data so that information and reports are available in time to support water quality management activities such as the reissuance of wastewater discharge (NPDES) permits, development of watershed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) documents, and periodic revision of the Ohio Water Quality Standards (WQS). Initially, the state was divided into 25 hydrologic units that represented aggregations of subbasins within the 23 major river basins previously delineated by Ohio EPA for the Planning and Engineering Data Management System for Ohio (PEMSO) system. The 25 hydrologic units are roughly distributed equally among the five Ohio EPA districts. Each year, monitoring takes place within five of the areas, one in each of the five Ohio EPA districts, with an aggregate total of 400-500 sampling locations. Thus, five years is required to complete the cycle of monitoring within each of the 25 hydrologic areas.

Further refinement of the five-year basin design occurred in the early 2000s in response to Ohio EPA's decision to embark on a progressive watershed-based monitoring, assessment and reporting approach to facilitate the collection of data to support development of TMDLs impairing beneficial uses using the 12-Step TMDL Process (Ohio EPA, 1999). To this end, Ohio EPA adopted as basic watershed assessment units the U.S. Geological Survey 11-digit Hydrologic Unit (HUC-11); there are 331 delineated within Ohio. The HUC-11 assessment units were thought to be of practical size for development, management and implementation of effective TMDLs and, as such, served as the basic biosurvey design for this high-priority program activity through 2007. However, in practice, TMDLs were effectively being implemented with projects operating at the U.S. Geological Survey 12-digit Hydrologic Unit (HUC-12) scale. Thus, beginning with the 2008 survey year and as reported in the 2010 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report, 1,538 HUC-12 watershed assessment units (WAUs) became the primary reporting unit for watershed survey monitoring and assessment and TMDL development and implementation.

The HUC-12 WAU scale is used to categorize and assess stream and river sites draining watersheds up to 500 square miles. For Ohio's largest rivers greater than 500 square miles, large river assessment units (LRAUs) were developed on which to report independently since they are unique in their importance and cannot be readily included and effectively assessed in small HUC-12 watersheds. At this size, rivers generally are impacted more by the character of and activity in the accumulated drainage area and less by what is happening adjacent to the channel (i.e., on the stream bank) or in the immediate adjacent landscape.  Currently, 38 LRAUs have been established for the 23 largest rivers in Ohio.

Environmental Indicators

Ohio EPA's approach to surface water monitoring and management via the five-year basin approach essentially serves as an environmental feedback process taking "cues" from environmental indicators to effect needed changes or adjustments within water quality management. This hierarchy is essentially in place within the technical support document (TSD) process and represents, from a technical assessment and indicators framework standpoint, a watershed approach. The environmental indicators used in this process are categorized as stressor, exposure and response indicators.

  • Stressor indicators generally include activities that impact but may or may not degrade the environment. This includes point and nonpoint source loadings, land use changes and other broad-scale influences that generally result from anthropogenic activities.
  • Exposure indicators include chemical-specific, whole effluent toxicity, tissue residues and biomarkers, each of which suggest or provide evidence of biological exposure to stressor agents.
  • Response indicators include the direct measures of the status of use designations. For aquatic life uses, the community and population response parameters that are represented by the biological indices that comprise Ohio EPA’s biological criteria are the principal response indicators. For human body contact uses (e.g., primary contact recreation), fecal bacteria (e.g., E. coli, fecal coliforms) are the principal response indicators.

The key to having a successful watershed approach is in using the different types of indicators within the roles that are the most appropriate for each. The inappropriate use of stressor and exposure indicators as substitutes for response indicators is at the root of the national problem of widely divergent 305(b) statistics reported between the states. This issue is discussed in the 1994 Ohio Water Resource Inventory (Ohio EPA 1995).

Monitoring for Status and Trends

Technical Bulletin Series

The systematic monitoring and assessment of Ohio surface waters via the five-year basin approach since 1990, and overall since 1980, has produced a comprehensive database that can be used to address issues of statewide and program importance. Ohio EPA periodically produces technical bulletins to provide an in-depth analysis of specific issues ranging from the validation of specific water quality criteria to process descriptions for tools such as the biological criteria. These analyses would not be possible without the systematic baseline monitoring and assessment which are an aggregate result of the five-year basin approach.

Supplemental Information

U.S. EPA has developed a site on Biological Indicators of Watershed Health. The following paragraph is a July 1999 review from the Internet Scout Report.

This recently launched site on biological indicators, from the Environmental Protection Agency, is a gem, offering basic yet critical information on the what, where, why, and how of biological indicators. Presented in straightforward language, the site sets out to educate viewers about the importance of biological indicators -- those organisms that, because of their sensitivity to changes in the environment, "can provide accurate information about the health of a specific river, stream, lake, wetland, or estuary." The site is organized into seven main sections: Why use Indicators?, Key Concepts, Learn About State Programs, Biocriteria Resources, Fish as Indicators, Invertebrates as Indicators, and Periphyton as Indicators. In each section, a series of brief statements (with accompanying color photographs) leads the viewer through the logic, techniques, and methods used to assess watershed health. A collection of links rounds out the site.


From The Scout Report for Science & Engineering, Copyright Internet Scout Project 1994-1999.  http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/ 

DSW has additional information available for the following topics.


What does Ohio EPA do with the data?

Ohio EPA analyzes the data to determine how healthy the stream is and whether the water quality goals established for the stream are appropriate. If the stream is not meeting water quality goals, it is said to be impaired. The state is required to prepare a cleanup plan for waters that are impaired; this restoration plan is called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). If the goals for the stream are not appropriate, Ohio EPA may change the goals through an administrative rule-making.

The findings and conclusions of the study are typically documented in a biological and water quality report.

The findings of each biological and water quality study may be used in regulatory actions taken by Ohio EPA. The results are incorporated into Water Quality Permit Support Documents, State Water Quality Management Plans and the Ohio Nonpoint Source Assessment. This information also provides the basis for the Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report -- a biennial statewide report on the condition of Ohio's waters and the list of impaired and threatened waters required by Sections 303(d) and 305(b) of the Clean Water Act.

How long does the sampling take?

Most of the sampling will be completed by Oct. 31 of each year. Chemical samples for a few sites in the watershed may be collected through the next year. If we find that the stream is not meeting water quality goals, then additional measurements may also be made the following summer. 

Who analyzes the samples?

Most fish sampling occurs in the field and the fish are returned to the stream alive. The macroinvertebrate (aquatic insect) samples are returned to Ohio EPA for processing over the next year. Most of the chemical samples are analyzed at Ohio EPA’s laboratory in Columbus, although local laboratories may be used for some analyses. 

If I encounter Ohio EPA staff, is it OK to talk with them?

Please do. Most of the time, Ohio EPA staff will be happy to answer your questions and talk about what they are doing. In some instances, however, they may not have a lot of time because they need to deliver samples to a laboratory at a specific time. 

How can I find out the results of the study?

It takes several months to process, evaluate and synthesize the data into tables and written summaries. Frequently, a public meeting about the findings of the study is held in the local area. Typically, a biological and water quality report is written about the survey’s findings (see past reports here).

Announcements about the study and its findings are usually sent to local newspapers. If you want to make sure you know about public meetings and generally stay informed as the process continues, please send your contact information to DSW_TMDL@epa.ohio.gov. In the subject line of your email, please identify your watershed of interest.

What if the streams are meeting water quality goals?

Congratulations. You and your neighbors appear to be doing a good job of taking care of your streams. Since TMDLs address only impaired waters, no TMDL is needed if waters are not impaired.

Even though the stream doesn’t need to be restored, it should be protected to maintain its good quality.

What about monitoring in future years?

Ohio EPA has included the projected long-term monitoring schedule in the Integrated Reports since 2002. The 2014 Integrated Report contains the most recent monitoring schedule.

A number of factors are considered in setting up the long-term monitoring schedule and in deciding where we will monitor in any given year.

The monitoring schedule is projected based on resources available in 2014. The schedule can change for any number of reasons; projections for 2015-2018 are more certain than for later years.

The schedule depicts intense full-watershed monitoring as part of the TMDL process. As there are indications of improvements, we will revisit TMDL areas to measure water quality conditions. Such monitoring will be arranged to answer the question being posed and may not include the basin-wide structure typically used to create TMDL plans. As more "revisit" work is needed, future schedules may reflect the impact of resources redirected to this purpose.

Ohio EPA makes every effort to stretch monitoring and TMDL resources by taking advantage of opportunities to work with others. When suitable opportunities arise, we adjust the monitoring schedule to participate.

The "Five-Year Monitoring Plan" provided a framework for the schedule. Generally, the five color groupings on the map depict the five watershed groupings of the monitoring plan, with the color intensity indicating when during the next three cycles the watershed is likely to be monitored.

Among watersheds not already being addressed by recent monitoring and TMDLs, several factors were examined to produce this schedule, including:

  • amount of impervious surface;
  • presence of high-value attributes;
  • presence of public drinking water supply intakes;
  • degree of impairment (impairment rank);
  • likelihood of change (population growth);
  • presence of major basin initiatives led by others;
  • proximity to other selected assessment units; and
  • workload capacity of Ohio EPA staff.

2016

Where does Ohio EPA expect to be monitoring in 2016?

Routine Monitoring
According to our projected schedule (see dark green areas on our Long-Term Monitoring Schedule), we plan to monitor in the following watersheds in 2016.  

Ohio's long-term monitoring schedule is revisited every two years in the Integrated Report process.  See the Integrated Report page for more information.

Special Monitoring Projects
In addition, we will be monitoring the following watersheds for special projects. Click on the links to view the study plans.

2015

Where does Ohio EPA expect to be monitoring in 2015?

Routine Monitoring
According to our projected schedule (see dark yellow areas on our Long-Term Monitoring Schedule), we plan to monitor in the following watersheds in 2015.  

Ohio's long-term monitoring schedule is revisited every two years in the Integrated Report process.  See the Integrated Report page for more information.

Special Monitoring Projects
In addition, we will be monitoring the following watersheds for special projects. Click on the links to view the study plans.

2014

Where does Ohio EPA expect to be monitoring in 2014?

Routine Monitoring
According to our projected schedule (see dark yellow areas on our Long-Term Monitoring Schedule), we plan to monitor in the following watersheds in 2014.  Click on the links to view the study plans.

Ohio's long-term monitoring schedule is revisited every two years in the Integrated Report process.  See the Integrated Report page for more information.

Special Monitoring Projects
In addition, we will be monitoring the following watersheds for special projects. Click on the links to view the study plans.

2013

Where did Ohio EPA monitor in 2013?

Click on the links to view the study plans.

In addition, we monitored the following watersheds for special projects.  Click on the links to view the study plans.