(This is part of a series of stories we are doing to commemorate Rural Action’s 30th anniversary. If you would like to be interviewed or to provide an essay on your Rural Action experiences, please contact us.)
As Mike Steinmaus walks along a path near his home in southern Perry County, he is reminded of the paths that led him to the Hill Country of Ohio. “I was comfortable in my home state of Iowa. I owned and managed an environmental consulting firm. I had a staff consisting of a co-worker, a secretary, and a graphics designer. We had projects throughout the Midwest.” But in late Fall of 1999, he received an application from Rural Action for the position of Watershed Coordinator at Monday Creek. Carol Kuhre, Executive Director of Rural Action, convinced him to apply. “Carol called me one evening and said, ‘Mike, we haven’t seen your application. Fax it to me tomorrow; it’s the deadline for candidates.’”
Within a month, Mike was selected for the position, and on a cold January day he set foot in the “new” Monday Creek office on Main Street in New Straitsville. The office was in a former Kroger Store on the first floor of the Masonic Building. It consisted of a cavernous room with a small gas heater and bookshelves. A second, smaller room held an open-top industrial freezer (too bulky to remove when the store closed). And in the far-back room was a toilet and sink with a single light bulb hanging down from a cord. The only furniture in the office consisted of a heavy wooden desk and wooden swivel chair provided by Wayne National Forest and a second table and chair.
So, with little fanfare, Norah Pons Newberg, the VISTA assigned to the Monday Creek project, and Mike took up residence. “My first few weeks were taken up meeting key partners from various state and federal agencies, educators from Ohio University and Hocking College, and the staff at Rural Action.” Norah was a great help in familiarizing Mike with the community leaders and organizations associated with the region.
“Our early field work consisted of taking flow and water quality measurements at various locations,” Mike says. “We would sign out a pickup truck and sampling equipment from the U.S. Forest Service office on Columbus Road in Athens and head out to stream locations. Many days in January and February were spent in the cold waters of Monday Creek!”
With the arrival of Spring, final stages of work were completed at the Rock Run site with coal tailings covered with an impervious material, then topsoil and seeded. And many more restoration projects were being considered. A team of project planners (Marsha Wikle from Wayne National Forest, Mitch Farley from ODNR Division of Mineral Resource Management, Mary Stoertz, an associate professor at Ohio University, and Dan Imhoff from Ohio EPA) helped develop plans for reclamation of Monday Creek.
The technology for neutralizing acid mine drainage evolved over the years while Mike was at Monday Creek. Initially, crushed limestone and limestone rocks were placed on stream banks and in the stream beds. Then, the addition of limestone leach beds was found to be more efficient and longer lasting. Within a year or two, the focus turned toward steel slag leach beds that did a better job neutralizing acid. And then, water-powered dosing machines similar to those used in Maryland and Pennsylvania were introduced with great success in neutralizing streams for several miles.
All of these treatment methods required flow measurements, water-quality sampling, calculations of acid loads, selection and sizing of systems and estimating construction costs. “Project planning was not a simple process; it required teamwork from field teams, planners and engineers,” Mike says. “Much of my involvement was coordination of project development, from initial sampling and site selection to treatment development and project construction.” One of Mike’s major inputs was writing grant applications to funding agencies like the Ohio EPA and the Office of Surface Mining.
Two of the most exciting and unique projects while Mike was Watershed Coordinator were an “AMD and Art” project in Murray City that involved water treatment with an educational perspective and a $23 million comprehensive watershed restoration project through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ODNR Division of Mineral Resources Management. Although both projects were approved and progressed through the planning stages, neither were completed due to various complications.
Mike’s work as a Watershed Coordinator wasn’t limited to the Monday Creek watershed. He assisted in developing the Sunday Creek Watershed Group and supported the sponsorship of Huff Run Watershed Restoration Partnership with Rural Action. He actively participated in statewide watershed meetings and annual conferences sponsored by ODNR. As a member of River Network, an organization connecting water protectors and advocates throughout the U.S., Mike attended over a dozen River Rallies at various locations around the nation.
In 2000, Mike attended a nationwide meeting of watershed organizations that led to the formation of 13 roundtable groups formed under President Bill Clinton’s Clean Water Action Plan to restore degraded watersheds. One of those groups was the Eastern Coal Regional Roundtable comprising an eight-state Appalachian region. Mike was a charter member of the roundtable and over the years held positions of Vice-chair and Chairman. The ECRR (later known as the Appalachian Energy and Environment Partnership) provided information and support to over 600 watershed groups.
In 2009, Mike became an environmental representative to the Ohio River Basin Alliance, a voluntary collaboration committed to developing long-term, comprehensive plans for sustainable economic growth and wise water resource management of the Ohio River Watershed. Mike was elected to the ORBA Steering Committee, whose purpose was to promote the mission, vision and goals of the organization across 14 states.
During these years at Monday Creek, Mike was building partnerships on a local, state and national level. He edited a quarterly newsletter to keep local residents informed with project updates, meeting dates and watershed activities such as watershed tours and canoe floats. He promoted Monday Creek and Rural Action at village and regional festivals and with local community organizations.
Mike actively encouraged and promoted the work of VISTA and AmeriCorps volunteers assigned to Monday Creek. He worked with them to build their skills in water quality sampling, macroinvertebrate sampling, equipment maintenance and community engagement.
Mike retired from Rural Action in 2012, leaving the management of Monday Creek in the capable hands of Nate Schlater. Nate had worked with Mike as a water quality specialist prior to Mike’s retirement. Nate has continued to build and develop improvements to Monday Creek.
Since retirement, Mike has stayed busy. With his wife, Jan, he operates a bed and breakfast and raises llamas. Mike remained on the ORBA Steering Committee until two years ago. Until recently, he served as a firefighter on the Monday Creek Township Volunteer Fire Department and is an officer in the Junction City American Legion Post.
Mike and Jan spend as much time as is available with five granddaughters and two great-nieces. They enjoy short vacations at Ohio’s state parks and trips to Iowa, Minnesota, and Youngstown to visit family. They are looking forward to a Viking cruise of the Baltic region in 2022.
And what about that bare Monday Creek office in New Straitsville. It’s still there, filled with stories and laughter from energetic AmeriCorps volunteers and the watershed staff. The office has tables, chairs, computers, sampling equipment and an aquarium. But the open-top freezer – it’s gone !
(Read more stories and reminiscences of Rural Action’s 30 year history.)