Making a Healthy River

When it comes to river health and the creatures who live in and along it, the Ohio’s muddy surface only tells part of the story.
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With eight member states, the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) monitors water quality inside the 981-mile river. About a dozen technical staff use methods like electrofishing surveys, fish tissue collection to record levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); tools like gas chromatograph units that alert for volatile organic compounds to check for spills; and 33 monitoring stations along the river and its major tributaries that track chemical levels.

If Cincinnati’s section of the river got a report card, how would we score? ORSANCO technical director Jason Heath says our area rates a “B” or “healthy condition” overall. The river gets high marks for our drinking water, bacteria levels, and recreation safety, but problem points include the compounds in fish tissue. “You can still eat the fish that contain PCBs and dioxin, but maybe it’s only one meal a month,” Heath says. Harmful algal blooms, which can sap nutrients from native wildlife, have also become more frequent when the river is low, though Heath says the last notable bloom event was in 2019. What about forever chemicals? ORSANCO monitors those, too, after finishing a baseline study last year.

The commission works with the Ohio River Basin Alliance to advocate for more federal dollars to combat pollution and habitat destruction to make the entire waterway a safer place for animals to live and people to use. What can you do for a cleaner river? Check out ORSANCO’s Ohio River Sweep program, which sends supplies to events all along the river for trash cleanup—about 5,000 volunteers pitched in last year.

Meet the River Creatures

Illustration by Tom Clohosy Cole

1. Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

The majestic (from the legs up, anyway) oiseau fatale stands in wait along the shallows to snap up fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, rodents, other birds, or anything else unlucky enough to meet its gaze.

2. Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

The Ohio River Valley is on the edge of the majestic monarch’s spring and summer breeding grounds, so you’ll find an abundance during the warmer months. When cooler air arrives, you have a better chance of spotting them at the Krohn Conservatory.

3. Asian Carp

These invasive fish can be river villains. The carp edge out native species that feed on plankton, and grass carp, which cannot reproduce and are mainly used in private ponds for vegetation control, can also spill into natural waterways and destroy native marine plants. Silver carp have been spotted leaping high above the water—so boaters, beware.

4. Ohio Valley Water Snake (Clonophis kirtlandii)

Also called Kirtland’s snake, this semi-aquatic ophidian lurks around the marshy areas of the Ohio River. They’re harmless as far as we know—in fact, no one has ever recorded receiving a bite from this small snake.

5. Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera)

Distinguished by their flat, rubbery shell and long noses, these reptiles spend most of the day in the sun in search of insects and crayfish to snack on. When threatened, the spiny softshell retreats into the sand, leaving just its head poking up.

6. Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)

Here’s one angler you won’t find hanging around the tackle shop, because even the best can’t rival the tiny-but-mighty kingfisher. The blue-breasted bird waits perched above the water before divebombing close to the surface to spear prey with its sharp bill.

7. Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)

The long-nosed filter feeders, which typically grow up to 60 pounds and live more than 50 years, use their gill rakers to comb the water for tiny crustaceans and insect larvae. They’ve been on the job since 50 million years before the dinosaurs—overtime, anyone?

8. Otters

Otters were once extirpated from the river as a nuisance species—the cuddly-looking creatures wreak havoc on local fisheries and private ponds. About 120 otters were reintroduced to the river in 1986, and their population sits at about 6,500 today. After all, who could stay mad at a face that cute?

Illustration by Tom Clohosy Cole

Flexing Our Mussels

The Ohio River watershed is home to some of the most biodiverse freshwater mussels anywhere outside the Mississippi River watershed. These mussels are the silent cleanup crew of our main waterway, quietly making meals of silt, sediment, and even pollutants in the Ohio River. Many mussels have been on the job since long before we were born—some live to be more than a century old.

According to the Ohio River Foundation, the Ohio River was once home to 127 out of the nearly 300 freshwater mussel species in North America. Today, 11 of those mussel species are extinct, and 46 are endangered or “species of concern,” including fanshell, clubshell, and snuffbox mussels. The foundation says this decline is mainly due to human changes to the environment, like damming, dredging, and pollution, as well as the introduction of exotic invasive species like the zebra mussel. But because they live so long and mostly stay in one place, mussels can be a powerful indicator of how the surrounding environment is doing.

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