When Dayton’s founders settled at the convergence of the Miami, Mad and Stillwater rivers, little did they know that one of North America’s most abundant natural aquifers lay under the surface. The Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer offers Dayton and surrounding communities an exceptional natural resource of water that could, if properly maintained and protected, serve the area with drinking water for generations to come.

This past July, the Dayton City Commission voted unanimously to implement updates to Dayton’s Source Water Protection Program (SWPP). The updates will:

• Expand the SWPP by 36 percent. While the boundary is reduced by a net 12 percent, the growth is because of the addition of the water resource area, which is the five year time of travel. 

• Expand the early warning monitoring network from 300 to 450 monitoring wells. 

• Increase zoning land-use prohibitions from eight to 26 prohibited categories. 

• Increase maximum fines for violation from $500 to $50,000. 

While the city feels its new protection plan is in the best interest of the 400,000 citizens dependent on the aquifer, an active handful wonder if more should be done to ensure the future of one of the region’s most precious commodities. In the eyes of the grass-roots group Dayton Citizens’ Water Brigade, two other steps the city took are not so rosy: reducing the aquifer’s protection area, and allowing businesses built above the aquifer greater latitude in the chemicals they can store. 

The Brigade says it will keep the public informed of the city’s implementation of the plan and publicize any hearings that may jeopardize the aquifer.

The city implemented its aquifer protection program in 1988. According to Michele Simmons, environmental manager for the City of Dayton’s Department of Water, “the program is a national and international model on innovative water resource management and protection, and is currently used by the Ohio EPA as one of the most significant case studies on how to develop and implement a comprehensive and successful source water protection program.”

The plan’s impetus was the 1987 Sherwin-Williams chemical fire, which put the aquifer at risk from toxic pollutants. Dina Pierce, media coordinator for the northwest and southwest districts of the Ohio EPA, says the fire “led officials to recognize the need to have a plan in place to identify the risks to the drinking water source, work with the stakeholders to prevent spills and be prepared to react when incidents occur.

“Dayton established the Division of Environmental Management to specially address its environmental needs, including source water protection,” Pierce explains. “In addition, Dayton had the foresight to enforce its SWPP through the adoption of a source water protection ordinance that places some restrictions on activities that may occur within the source water protection area.” 

Shutting Down the Conversation

Despite official assurances, the Dayton Citizens’ Water Brigade is concerned about the modification to the number of chemicals for which businesses can seek variances, chemicals that had previously not been allowed by the SWPP. Brigade member Monica Snow says that the language in the new plan does not set a cap for the variances, which could potentially allow businesses above the aquifer to store excessive amounts of chemicals that could compromise the water. 

The city also reduced the aquifer protection area, saying that new scientific models show they were justified in doing so. 

And while Snow says that some of the data may not have been interpreted correctly or could have been subject to human error, the Brigade feels more or less comfortable with city’s interpretation of the science. 

“No one with DCWB has ever challenged the science that the city is using to justify its revisions,” says Brigade member Teri Schoch. “The city commission’s own Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) has taken no issue with the data, and they are scientists—hydro-geologists, geologists, etc.” 

However, despite its faith in the “science,” the EAB advised the city to not allow the reductions to the aquifer’s protection. “The commission’s blind faith in the data that was used to generate new models is questionable, especially in light of their ignoring unanimous EAB advice to not make the changes that they did,” says Schoch. 

And while the Brigade doesn’t take issue with the science per se, “what we do take issue with is that the word ‘science’ has been used to shut down the conversation,” she says. “The bigger question is why we need to reduce the protections?”

Ellis Jacobs, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Equality in Dayton, says his concern is about the storing of hazardous chemicals over the aquifer. “It establishes a roadmap for getting a variance for the storage of hazardous chemicals,” he says. “The standard for ultimately getting that variance is vague. I’m concerned that the Board of Zoning Appeals will end up having to grant variances that put our aquifer at substantial risk.” 

He says that if the zoning board rejects a variance, a company can then appeal it twice; the zoning board will define the standards for getting a variance during the appeals process. 

“They’ll also have the court looking over their shoulders,” Jacobs says, concluding that public advocacy lawyers will have to fight at every stage of the process to get clear definitions of standards. 

“And better protections,” says Jacobs.