Cleaning an Ohio Classic

Photo: FLOW Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed

How Friends of the Olentangy Watershed (FLOW) is making a difference to protect and improve one of the Columbus area’s defining rivers.

The definition of a watershed—not to mention its greater impact on the environment—can be a difficult concept to impart. Fortunately for central Ohio’s outdoor adventurers, there’s FLOW. That is Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 to educate the public about the importance of the Lower Olentangy watershed, and to keep it clean and safe through a variety of riparian restoration projects.

To better understand the Lower Olentangy, it helps to start with the basic definition of a watershed: the land mass from which water (from rain, melted snow and perhaps your washing machine) drains into a specific body of water. For the body that is the Lower Olentangy River, its watershed stretches for 32 miles from Delaware, Ohio, on its north end, through a greenway corridor (popular with both paddlers and cyclists), flowing straight south to the confluence with the Scioto River in downtown Columbus. That area is home to nearly 300,000 people and encompasses 150 square miles, including about 400 miles of tributaries that run into the Olentangy. From the Olentangy, all this water flows into the Scioto, then the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. 

“And that means the pollution that ends up in the Olentangy River eventually winds up in the Gulf,” says Laura Fay, a longtime FLOW board member who has worked as a water environmentalist for The Ohio State University, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “It’s all connected.”

Fortunately, Fay reports, water quality in the Olentangy is “in pretty good shape,” noting how the northern section, near Delaware, is a state-designated Scenic River due to its exceptional water quality. But that pristine quality doesn’t mean that one of the city’s defining rivers, which bisects the northern half of Columbus, takes care of itself. Maintenance is vital and requires constant vigilance to improve the quality of all this water, as well as the variety of insects and fish it provides habitat for, plus the biodiverse range of plant life along the banks.

Photo: FLOW Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed

How To Save a River

Two problems in particular plague the work to better the river’s health: man-made pollution and a non-native, invasive shrub.

Much of the man-made pollution comes when rain washes excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen found in many fertilizers, as well as the oil or brake fluid that can leak out of parked cars, into the stormwater system. “And there’s all the liter,” Fay adds. “We see so many plastic bottles and beer cans in the storm drains…and the runoff from construction sites, from the people who don’t follow the best management practices, is another big issue.”

The invasive shrub, which has a seemingly harmless name (Honeysuckle) has become prevalent—at times choking the life out of trees and other plants that it invades and surrounds. The combination of elevated levels of polluted stormwater and the impact of honeysuckle can seriously erode the banks of creeks and rivers, and lead to a decrease in water quality.

Local Impact

Over a one-year period that ended last summer, about 1,600 FLOW volunteers participated in 52 honeysuckle-removal events, planted 404 trees and 7,284 seedlings, and collected 391 bags of trash. Crews plant pawpaw trees and viburnum shrubs in the place of the honeysuckle.

“Honeysuckle is so prevalent we’re not going to be able to get it all,” Fay says, “so we concentrate on high-quality areas, like stream banks.”

To mark Earth Day, FLOW volunteers planted several varieties of trees in the watershed, including oaks and hickories during the month of April. “These trees help support the food web,” Fay explains, adding that 500 varieties of butterflies and moths lay their eggs in these trees. Trees also absorb and filter out pollutants in the water.

Volunteers from FLOW, along with members of a local AmeriCorps team, also recently restored about 1,000 feet along the banks of the Slyh Run stream corridor. Additionally, they constructed a 60-foot bridge across the stream to connect Cranbrook Elementary School, on the south side of the stream, with the housing developments on the north side. And beyond that, FLOW developed the Green Space Plan 2020, which inventories the resources of the watershed, and identifies high-quality areas that need protection as well as ways to better accommodate access to green spaces.

Get Involved

“Our volunteers are wonderful,” Fay says of the hundreds of local river protectors, enthusiasts, anglers and paddlers who are connected to FLOW and pitch in on projects. “They understand our goals and become stewards of the environment and become very passionate advocates.

“And you don’t need to have any specific skills or knowledge,” Fay adds. “We’ll teach you everything you need to know. And if someone wants to become more involved we have several committees—such as our science committee or outreach and fundraising committee—and we can always use more help.” 

— Visit for more information on how to volunteer with FLOW.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.