I used to be the environmental attorney for the city. I started to notice articles and photographs in the newspaper that showed refrigerators flowing down the river, and nobody was saying they thought that was bad. So I got together with some colleagues and formed the Ohio River Foundation to improve the condition of the river.
Overall, the water quality of the whole 981 miles is fair to poor. Mercury levels are still high enough that consumption of fish is not recommended. Raw sewage still flows into the river. There are certain times when the river is deemed unsafe for human contact [by ORSANCO]. We also have extreme problems with nitrogen and phosphorus, which come from storm water runoff, and with water volume and sediment. The reasons for improving the water are straightforward. Four million people obtain their drinking water from the Ohio River, so you have treatment costs associated with making it drinkable. These costs have increased in the last few years.
To alleviate the runoff problem, we need to keep the water percolating through the ground by disconnecting downspouts and installing rain gardens, roof gardens, and rain barrels. Governments need to update infrastructure and the associated regulation. For example, road construction still involves attaching every road surface to a storm sewer.
Citizens can update their homes. Using water efficient products like showerheads and toilets will immensely cut their water usage and keep money in their pockets. That translates to lower costs for treatment because the sewer districts will receive less wastewater.
We have educated about 10,000 students through our River Explorer education program. This summer, we launched youth conservation teams, groups of high school students that go out to perform restoration projects like planting trees along rivers and streams to reduce erosion. On the advocacy side, we defeated an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $2 billion of public money to extend backup locks with no cost benefit to the taxpayer. Obviously, we need to maintain our locks and dams because the river’s navigation system is necessary for commerce. But from an ecological standpoint, changing the habitat from an 18-inch-deep river to an average depth of about 20 feet has wreaked havoc. Species have gone extinct. Mussel populations have been destroyed. Fish populations are still far below what they were historically.
The future health of the river depends on a combination of all of these factors. It’s about personal choices by homeowners to be more efficient, as well as regulatory decisions at the local, state, and federal levels.
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