(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.)
“The fish was this big,” says Nate Schlater, gesturing the way anglers often do when they’re exaggerating the size of their catch during a fish tale.
But this is no fish tale. It’s a true story, and it’s an indication of how much local waterways have healed in the wake of historic coal mining that left many streams in Appalachian Ohio orange and lifeless.
The fish in question was a channel catfish in Monday Creek. A local resident approached Nate at a water sampling site recently to show him the video of the leviathan. Apparently, he’s been feeding the catfish dog food, which accounts for the considerable size. But it wasn’t that long ago that catfish couldn’t have survived in the creek no matter how much dog food was tossed in to nourish them.
“I’ve spent years monitoring fish in Monday Creek and never seen anything like this come out,” Nate says.
Another time, a local trapper bought Nate a beer, saying he’s catching more mink now, a fact that he attributes to cleaner water in Monday Creek.
“I’m technical,” Nate says. “I like biology. I care a lot about that type of stuff. But what goes on with the data behind the scenes isn’t nearly as powerful as stories like these. Seeing a fish in a stream that hasn’t been there for 100 years is exciting. You tell those stories for years to come.”
Nate started with Rural Action in 2008 as an Ohio Department of Natural Resources intern. He moved to a part-time role as he finished up his bachelor’s degree in Fish and Wildlife Conservation and Management at Rio Grande after having earned an associate degree in Fish Management and Aquaculture at Hocking College.
Once he graduated, he moved into a full-time role working for then-Watershed Coordinator Mike Steinmaus. The two of them were the watershed team at Rural Action’ Monday Creek office.
Thirteen years later, much has changed. And much is the same.
Today, Nate is Rural Action’s Watershed Director, a program that will total 8 people when a current opening is filled. That’s not counting the True Pigments project, a Rural Action social enterprise that emerged from the watershed work and is building a facility that will convert the iron oxide in acid mine drainage to pigment that can be sold for use in paint and other products. And there’s another team in Tuscarawas County working on water quality issues there as well as other initiatives.
“When I first started here, Rural Action felt more like a stepping stone to the next thing,” Nate says. “I saw a lot of staff move on to DNR or the Corps of Engineers. Today, Rural Action feels like a destination where there are opportunities for career growth.”
Grants still fuel much of the work, and the maintenance of dosers that adjust the pH levels in local creeks, water monitoring, and fish sampling are key parts of the job. An expansion of that work is being planned in the upper portion of the Rush Creek watershed, a 31-mile tributary to the Hocking River. Acid mine drainage has left that section of the creek devoid of aquatic life, and community input is being sought to help guide the project.
New initiatives also are under way, including a partnership with Ohio University to determine if it is possible to reduce the cost of sewage system maintenance by creating a marketable fertilizer from septage. Ideally, this could help offset — or even eliminate — the cost of regular septic system maintenance, which is often cited as a factor in why homeowners don’t maintain their systems properly. It is estimated that failing septic systems release 120 million gallons of tainted effluent into Ohio water resources every day.
In a major new initiative, the Watershed team is working on a three-year project to address high phosphorus loads in sub-watersheds in the West Lake Erie Basin. Phosphorus pollution comes from a variety of sources including wastewater and agricultural fields. Nutrient enrichment can lead to harmful algal blooms.
As he talks about these projects, Nate is quick to laud the key role National Service members play. “The energy and innovation that comes from them helps keep the program going,” he says. Three of the eight members of the Watershed team are National Service members.
Thanks in part to the nature of the work, the team is particularly close-knit.
“A lot of it comes from the field work,” Nate explains. “If you spend a whole day sweating and laughing in a creek while wearing waders, it increases that team feeling. Even if one of you just got torn up by a thorn bush, you have that in common, at a minimum. There are companies that pay for these types of experiences as team-building exercises. We do them as part of our work.”
Nate smiles as he recalls his first encounter with Rural Action’s culture.
“I attended my first staff meeting when I was still an intern, and we had to dance,” he says. “Hold hands, go to the center, come back out. Actual dancing. I like things planned out. I’m more of a concrete thinker. Coming to that first meeting and dancing, I was thinking, ‘What am I getting myself into?’”
While there aren’t many dances at Rural Action staff meetings these days, it’s still possible to take yoga classes in the conference room. Each staff meeting starts with a discussion of what participants are “celebrating” that day, and time is taken at the end of meetings to appreciate what each staffer is doing to help co-workers.
“It’s the same as when we danced at my first staff meeting,” Nate says. “That same vibe is still happening here. I really do appreciate that.”