For 981 miles, the Ohio River winds its way from Pittsburgh through parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.
Like many other rivers, the Ohio, a primary tributary to the Mississippi at their confluence in Cairo, Ill., was and still is a major source of drinking water, transportation, commerce, fishing, and recreation, among other uses.
In Greater Cincinnati, the Ohio River serves as the natural boundary between Kentucky and Ohio.
Richard Harrison, Executive Director of the Cincinnati-based Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (commonly referred to in these parts as ORSANCO) acknowledges that the river faces many challenges.
But Harrison notes that much progress has been made in the nearly 70 years since ORSANCO was first established under the mandate of working to improve water quality for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and the five million humans who now live in the watershed.
For instance, prior to 1948, Harrison said that less than one percent of water discharged into the Ohio by communities along the river was treated. At the same time, the river was also being used for transportation , commerce, and heavy industry. To say the river was polluted would be an understatement.
“Before we were formed,” Harrison said, “the contents of the Ohio River was very challenged. That was the backdrop to ORSANCO’s formation.”
ORSANCO’s member states now include the six referenced earlier, as well as Virginia and New York, both of which have tributaries that flow into the Ohio River.
As a result the early practices on the Ohio, some sediments still contain Polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs), man-made chemicals commonly used on industrial machinery as lubricants and coolants. Use of PCBs ended in the late 1970s when it was determined that they had negative effects on fish and wildlife, and were linked to serious health problems in humans, including neurological issues for children, reproductive problems for women, and some forms of cancer.
These days, ORSANCO aggressively assesses and analyzes water quality along the Ohio and coordinates with each of the member states to keep the river clean and safe. Other stakeholders, including the EPA, environmental groups, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name just a few, are also advised and consulted for input and feedback.
Such active oversight and communication has allowed the Ohio to enjoy a resurgence in recreational activities such as kayaking, paddling, water skiing, pleasure boating and fishing. For instance, more than 130 species of fish and aquatic life are now present and active again in the Ohio.
But Harrison said the fight is not over, and many challenges remain, chief among them finding ways to persuade governments and the voting public to reinvest in public infrastructure projects such as water pipes, sewer lines, and wastewater treatment plants.
Across the U.S., such public infrastructure is 50, 75 or even 100 years old, Harrison explained, pointing out that as a nation, we have been quite fortunate that for the most part, these systems have lasted so long.
But increasing populations, larger volumes of wastewater from homes and businesses, as well as storm water run-off when it rains, all combine to further stress our aging infrastructure, which could eventually lead to serious system failures. Conservative estimates place the nation’s infrastructure replacement needs at well north of $1 trillion.
“I think the public should be engaged,” said Harrison. “They should be aware of the great investment it’s going to take.”
Apathy, or simple failure to act, could lead to serious and avoidable problems, warned Harrison. Step one is education and awareness.
“No matter where we live, we all live in a watershed,” Harrison explained. “The Ohio River and other great rivers in the United States are incredible resources. Don’t take it for granted.”
Aaron Rourke could not agree more. Growing up in the Southern Ohio town of Chillicothe, Rourke loved to fish and hunt, sparking his lifelong interest in environmental issues.
Today, Rourke is president of Rivers Unlimited, a statewide organization dedicated to protecting and restoring Ohio’s rivers.
The Ohio River, Rourke explains, has some 20 dams, some for power generation, some for agricultural purposes, and some for flood control. As a result, the ecology of the river has changed dramatically over the years.
“It’s not about having no dams at all,” Rourke said, acknowledging the river’s multiple uses for recreation, commerce, agriculture, transportation and more. But “we really have a legacy to guard here.”
Rourke said among his most pressing concerns are incidents of algal blooms, which form when too much phosphorous and too many nutrients, found in human and animal waste, occur in Ohio’s rivers.
Such incidents, if not addressed quickly and effectively, can cause ill effects in animals and people, including compromised immune systems and even death.
One Ohio River algal bloom, originally reported upriver in August 2015 by witnesses as “green paint” in the water, lasted two months and stretched for 700 miles.
For photos of our time in Ohio, please visit our Ohio River gallery page.