Wednesday, April 25, 2001

After century of decline, river quality recovering

By Terry Flynn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Ohio River, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, is cleaner today than it was 50 years ago, but you still don't want to swallow much of it or spend a lot of time in it.

        According to a river quality expert, it will never again be pristine but will probably be made even cleaner than it is now.

        “The watershed for the Ohio River is roughly the size of France, and over 25 million people live in that watershed,” he said. “All the runoff from farms and road salt and homes and businesses ends up in the Ohio River,” said Thomas More College biology professor Chris Lorentz. He operates the school's biology field station on the river between Melbourne and California, Ky. and is an Ohio River Valley historian and an expert in conservation genetics.
[photo] At a field biology station in California, Ky., Marcus Thomas, a biology student at Thomas More College, uses a dissolved oxygen meter to check oxygen levels in the Ohio River.
(Patrick Reddy photos)
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River business good

        According to the people who make their living from the river as a recreation attraction, the boating and personal watercraft business is good despite occasional warnings about the water quality.

        The Ohio River is 981 miles long, from its source at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at Pittsburgh to its meeting with the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill.

        “But there's much more to keeping the Ohio River clean than just the cities it passes through,” Mr. Lorentz said.

        The Ohio River had undergone a steady decline from the 1800s to the 1950s. But there has been a major change in the quality of water and amount of aquatic life in the last 50 years.

        “A lot of the shift is due to the changes of major discharge points, primarily sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities,” he said. “But the river water quality is still far from good, due in large part to sewage carried into the river by storm-water runoff from overburdened waste-treatment plants following major rain events.”

[photo] Conner Middle School students Scott Bellas (from left), Seven Leisl and Josh Meyer examine a paddlefish during a visit to the field biology station.
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        According to ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, less than 2 percent of discharges from waste-treatment facilities were treated in 1948. Today, discharges from all river communities receive primary and advanced secondary treatment.

        Health departments in communities along the river, such as Cincinnati, occasionally issue warnings about highlevels of illness-causing e. coli and fecal coliform bacteria, urging people to stay out of the water.

        “For a number of reasons, the river will never be what it was 100 years ago,” Mr. Lorentz said. “Then, the average depth was 14 inches. Now, with navigation dams, the pool (average) is 26 feet at Cincinnati and similar for the entire length of the river. With so much commercial use and so many people living on or near the river, it can never be as clean as it was. That's not possible.”

        The Ohio River makes up about 10 percent of the navigable waterways in the continental U.S., but it carries 40 percent of the commercial water traffic, according to U.S. Commerce Department and Coast Guard figures.

Boaters, skiers

[photo] Biologist Chris Lorentz with specimens of sauger, a fish whose numbers are increasing in the cleaner river.
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        Bob Laubrick, a former marine surveyor who is co-owner of Aquaramp Marina on Ky. 8 in Fort Thomas, said the relative cleanliness of the Ohio River has had little effect on most of the people who boat and ski on it in the warm months.

        “These are mostly river people,” he said. “They are used to seeing the water dirty or muddy part of the time. There are some people who prefer to go to the lakes because they want to swim, but there's still a lot of business on the river.”

The "Zebra' factor

        Mr. Laubrick and Mr. Lorentz, who have lived on the river for many years, agree it is quite often very clear and clean appearing, and the reason is a little bivalve called the zebra mussel.

        “The river has become cleaner and greener, especially when its in pool and there has been no major rain event for a while, because of the water filtering ability of the zebra mussel,” Mr. Lorentz explained. “That does not, however, outweigh the negatives aspects of the zebra mussel. It clogs industrial and water treatment intakes, and kills off native mussels by smothering them.”

        Zebra mussels came first to the Great Lakes from eastern Europe in the mid-1980s in the ballast water of large ships. It is a non-native clam that clings to underwater objects, and has been carried on boats, plants and other items out of the Great Lakes and into the river systems. They have been found as far south as the Tennessee River.
   • The Ohio River flows through or borders six states — Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.
   • There are 20 dams and 49 power-generating facilities on the Ohio River. The dams provide a 9-foot minimum depth for navigation.
   • More than 200 million tons of cargo are transported on the river each year, with coal being the most-transported commodity.
   • About 120 species of fish live in the river and the lower reaches of its tributaries.
   • The drainage basin of the Ohio River covers 204,000 square miles and portions of 14 states.
   • Swimming in the Ohio River in discouraged because of floating and underwater debris, boat traffic and underwater currents.

Old ideas die hard

        Regardless of how clean the water appears, there are still people who have a prejudice about the Ohio River, according to Ken Albu, owner of President's Boat Park in North Bend.

        “There is still a lot of negativism about the river, about the cleanliness of it,” said Mr. Albu, a retired school teacher. “It's hard to overcome years and years of it being pronounced unsafe.”

Business, science opportunities

        Some 100 area business, government and education leaders met last week for a daylong workshop cruise on the BB Riverboats' River Queen sponsored by the Metropolitan Growth Alliance to discuss the recreational, historical and commercial possibilities presented by the river.

        “It was an excellent exchange of information and ideas,” said Mr. Lorentz, who believes the Ohio River will be even more valuable as a natural environmental resource.

        He is currently studying a draft of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge proposal from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department that calls for restoring the trees and other growth that have been cleared from the banks and wetlands over the last 100 years.

        “If we can eventually restore most of the growth along the river, it will act as a natural filter for much of the pollutants that now reach the river through runoff,” he said.

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