Water Water Everywhere: Restoring the Ohio River Basin

Restoring the beleaguered but biodiverse Ohio River basin—one of the nation’s most polluted watersheds—sounds like an order as tall as the river is wide

  • By Randy Edwards
  • Conservation
  • Mar 28, 2024

INDUSTRIAL AND COMPLEX In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio: the heart of a dynamic but compromised watershed that’s home to 30 million people and a surprising abundance of biodiversity. (Photo by Dustin McGrew/dustincgrewphoto.com)

One of the most polluted watersheds in the U.S., the Ohio River basin has endured a sordid history of industrial fallout. A new effort—to restore the ecosystem, boost the economy and confront environmental injustices—sounds like an order as tall as the river is wide. But advocates say it’s possible, with a half-full outlook and unquenchable resolve.

CHARLES SOMERVILLE SPENT HIS CHILDHOOD in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a mill town less than 20 miles downstream from Pittsburgh, “the Steel City,” where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers famously join to form the mighty Ohio. The mills dominate his earliest memories: the smells of heavy oil and solvents, the mornings when neighborhood cars would be coated in black soot so thick he could write his name in it. He recalls the Jones and Laughlin steel mill dumping molten waste slag directly into the Ohio River—a spectacle of glowing metal and hissing water, especially vivid at night. “We thought it was really cool, like watching a lava eruption running right down the bank into the water,” says Somerville, now 68.

The J&L mill is long closed, and since the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, companies have faced more stringent rules about what gets dumped into our nation’s waterways. But the legacy of industrialization is only one of the problems that plague the Ohio River basin: an enormous, dynamic aquatic and terrestrial watershed that, despite its challenges, remains rich in plant and animal diversity, a cultural treasure and an economic engine.

Beyond residual pollution left behind by two centuries of rampant settlement and poorly regulated commerce, the river faces ongoing hazards, from nutrient runoff to invasive species. All of these perils are exacerbated by the threat multiplier of climate change. A 2017 study by the Ohio River Basin Alliance and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecast impacts from increased flooding to competition over dwindling water during periods of drought.

Somerville, a retired professor of environmental microbiology at Marshall University and the executive director of the Ohio River Basin Consortium for Research and Education, is one of many scientists, advocates and community organizers who have joined the cause to restore and protect the basin. It’s an endeavor, advocates say, that’s as complex and unpredictable as the river system itself, and success will require cooperation, innovation and long-overdue investments in both natural systems and human communities.

“I think it’s going to be difficult—no doubt,” Somerville says. “I also think it’s going to be imperative.”

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An image of Louisville Gas Electric Power Plant.

STACKED ODDS The 205,000-square-mile Ohio River basin (below) has seen two centuries of industry, from mining to manufacturing to energy production, including Louisville Gas and Electric’s Mill Creek Generating Station (above, in 2004).

Most school kids from the region learn the simplest facts early: The Ohio River flows 981 miles through six states until it empties into the Mississippi River in Cairo, Illinois. It provides drinking water for more than 5 million people; is the largest feeder of water, by volume, to the Mississippi; and links U.S. manufacturing and agricultural centers to global markets via the Gulf of Mexico. A more comprehensive consideration of the basin—including all of its tributaries, from the Allegheny River in New York to the southernmost reaches of the Tennessee River—covers 205,000 square miles over parts of 14 states.

A map of the Ohio River Basin.

Now home to 30 million people, the basin was important to humans long before European colonization—a relationship only beginning to receive widespread acknowledgment. In March 2023, the electric power giant Tennessee Valley Authority agreed to return the remains of nearly 5,000 Indigenous People—excavated decades ago during the construction of hydropower dams—to 21 Indigenous Tribes, as required by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. And in September, eight ceremonial earthworks in Ohio, built 1,600 to 2,000 years ago by a technologically advanced people referred to as Hopewell Culture, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Despite heavy population and industrialization, the basin is a biological hot spot, home to the greatest aquatic diversity of any tributary to the Mississippi, according to Bernie Kuhajda, an aquatic conservation biologist for the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. “The big rivers that drain the southeast quadrant of the United States, including the Ohio River and its largest tributary, the Tennessee River, are home to [much] of our freshwater biodiversity,” Kuhajda says. The reasons for that wealth are threefold, he explains. First, most of the basin was spared the continental glaciation that upended aquatic systems as recently as 20,000 years ago. Second, the region’s geological variety supports species diversification. Finally, compared to western states, the basin has abundant rainfall.

In total, the basin provides habitat for 350 species of fish, from prehistoric relics like shovelnose sturgeon to American paddlefish, which can reach 200 pounds each. Some 130 species of water-quality-improving freshwater mussels have been recorded—more than any river system on Earth, save the Mississippi, which owes much of its diversity to the Ohio.

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An image of a bridge linking Williamstown, West Virginia and Marietta, Ohio.

MONSTROUS EFFORT The Ohio River (above, between Marietta, Ohio, and Williamstown, West Virginia) provides essential habitat for imperiled wildlife such as (below) the eastern hellbender salamander; freshwater northern riffleshell, kidneyshell and clubshell mussels; and the American paddlefish.

Sadly, much of that biodiversity is imperiled. The Ohio River is one of the only major watersheds in the nation “that has never received significant federal funding,” says Michael Washburn, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. “Everybody talks about [the Ohio] being a ‘working river,’” he says. “And what that means is, people treat it like a piece of machinery, not as the ecological, economic, recreational, environmental heart of this part of the country.”

When Europeans began colonizing what is now the United States in earnest, they immediately altered the landscape. That legacy continues. Through a system of 20 locks and dams running the length of the Ohio, barges today haul 270 million tons of cargo annually—chiefly coal, and petroleum and farm commodities—from Pittsburgh to shipping ports as far downstream as New Orleans. The dams restrict fish and mussel movement, limiting genetic distribution, while frequent dredging damages aquatic wildlife habitat.

An image of an Eastern hellbender salamander.

Railroads followed the rivers, leading to corridors of mills, factories and power plants that promised prosperity but also made communities vulnerable. In 1986, a freight train derailed in Miamisburg, Ohio, spilling 12,000 gallons of white phosphorus, which caught fire and burned for five days. More than 30,000 residents were evacuated, with 400 people treated for eye, skin and lung irritation. An unknown quantity of phosphorus ended up in Ohio River tributaries.

An eerie echo occurred in February 2023, when a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, releasing vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and other toxic chemicals into the land, air and water. The spill led to evacuation orders for both sides of the Ohio–Pennsylvania line. Estimates range on the number of aquatic animals killed, but it could be 43,000 or more. As of late last year, cleanup efforts had removed 165 million tons of contaminated soil and more than 39 million gallons of liquid waste water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rail accidents aren’t the only source of spills. In January 2014, an industrial storage tank on the Elk River in West Virginia leaked 7,500 gallons of toxic chemicals into the ground and water, just upstream from the main water intake for metropolitan Charleston. The region was without drinking water for nearly a week, with some 700 residents reporting symptoms of chemical exposure within the first day.

An image of endangered freshwater mussels.

The Elk River spill was “an awakening” to “inadequate regulations and a lax approach to environmental oversight,” says Angie Rosser, former executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, an NWF affiliate, and newly named vice president of NWF’s One Federation. “People realized they better care about how the river is being protected because it is the source of their drinking water. It’s what we’re putting in our bodies, and you can’t get more personal than that.”

Threats continue to surface. In November, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a proposed $110 million settlement against DuPont for releasing perfluorooctanoic acid into the Ohio River from its factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Used by DuPont for more than 50 years to produce Teflon products, the acid is among a class known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals” linked to adverse health effects.

In 2022, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission released a report on samples taken from 22 sites along the river. It found PFAS in all the sites, some at levels higher than EPA recommendations for treated drinking water. While the samples were taken from raw water, only the most advanced facilities are able to remove PFAS. Many municipalities on the Ohio—among the most economically challenged in the nation, according to a 2020 index from the University of Michigan—have not been able to afford such systems. (In 2023, EPA announced $2 billion in grant funding available to communities for drinking water treatment.)

Poverty and lack of government support contribute to inadequate wastewater infrastructure as well. Antiquated city sewer systems, as well as pipes in rural homes that go straight from toilets into creeks, combine with farm runoff to create algal blooms—sometimes toxic, as with a 2015 bloom that covered 600 miles of the Ohio River.

An image of American paddlefish.

Nina McCoy, board chair for Martin County Concerned Citizens in eastern Kentucky, says her community—where 36 percent of residents fall below the poverty line, and coal severance revenue has decreased more than 90 percent over the past decade—lacks the resources to maintain or upgrade infrastructure. The county’s drinking water has received national attention since 2000, when a coal impoundment ruptured and spilled 306 million gallons of toxic slurry into area waterways. The sewer system is equally inadequate and expensive, says McCoy, also a commissioner for the Martin County Water and Sanitation Districts. A new sewer system was built in 2015 to extend service to those not reached by a decaying system from the 1980s. But the county already has the second-highest water rates in Kentucky, and officials were loath to enforce costly connections to the new system. “That means 20 percent of the people are paying for a sewer system that is inconceivably unaffordable,” she says.

Cleaner waterways could yield public health advantages beyond reducing toxins and disease, according to Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute. “Returning the river to traditional uses like boating, swimming and other kinds of social gathering, we’d get some community health benefits,” he says.

Investments in water quality and environmental cleanup often miss the “underserved, under-resourced and overburdened communities of color,” says James Mosley, who runs an environmental and community planning consultancy and chairs the Environment & Climate Justice committee of the NAACP chapter in Evansville, Indiana. Mosley was part of a team that identified a Superfund site in Evansville, created by an electroplating company that spread arsenic, lead and other toxins over a 4.5-square-mile area for decades. More than 4,000 properties had been cleaned up by the end of 2023, but Mosley says Evansville continues to be plagued by coal ash landfills upstream. Federal funding helps pay for remediation, but Mosley wants community members to have a voice: “This restoration plan can serve as an economic driver,” he says. “We want to make sure that low-income and people of color have a seat at the table.”

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An image of a finished green roof installed by Groundwork’s young-adult workforce.

RAISING THE ROOF Groundwork Ohio River Valley’s young adult workforce (above, on a green roof project) aims to bring environmental justice to “those who have been shut out of the systems,” according to the group’s co-founder Tanner Yess.

Last year the nonprofit American Rivers listed the Ohio as the second-most endangered river in the nation, after the Colorado. Citing the watershed’s history of mining and industrialization, chemical pollution, acid mine drainage, PFAS and other threats, they called on Congress to act.

The Ohio River Basin Alliance (ORBA)—a coalition of more than 300 groups spanning government, industry, universities and nonprofits, NWF among them—is developing a plan to restore the basin. ORBA has a wealth of data to draw on: from public health and environmental regulatory agencies, planners and academics, as well as 31 community listening sessions NWF held in 2022 and 2023, plus input from federally recognized Tribes in the basin and those with ancestral ties to the region. The resulting plan will address urgent threats that both people and wildlife face, including toxic pollution, sewage contamination, runoff and flooding. Once complete, ORBA will deliver the plan to Congress.

What’s needed, advocates say, are investments at a scale that matches the river itself—something comparable to the billions Congress has committed to the Everglades, the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. “We have a historic opportunity to put Ohio River restoration on the map and to stand up for the millions of people who depend on these waters for their drinking water, health, jobs and quality of life,” says Jordan Lubetkin, director of Ohio River restoration for NWF and a leader in the planning process. “We have manageable solutions, and it is time to use them, before the problems get worse and more expensive to solve.”

Local efforts are showing what could be done on a broader scale, if resources are made available. In the high country of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, for example, the nonprofit Green Forests Work has helped restore former coal mine sites to thriving wildlife habitats, with native birds, bats and amphibians returning to hundreds of acres of red spruce forests, streams and wetlands.

In the upper watershed, the Seneca Nation of Indians in western New York has fostered some habitat successes on the Allegheny River, even as shale gas development, or fracking, encroaches on all sides. “We have limited land and we won’t get more of it, so what we have, we have to protect,” says Shane Titus, Seneca director of conservation. Using a federal grant approved under the Hurricane Sandy restoration effort, the Seneca funded a new fish and wildlife manager position and built a solar-powered walleye hatchery—the first Indigenous-run hatchery in the state. Significant fish habitat was lost in the 1960s when the U.S. government built the Kinzua Dam, a project that took 10,000 acres of Seneca land and interrupted river flow. “Sixty years of sedimentation, and our walleye are in dire straits,” Titus says. “We want to bolster the populations to feed our people.”

Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, director of river restoration for American Rivers, has witnessed wins with dam removal. Working with the U.S. Forest Service and the Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership, among others, the organization has helped remove 50 dams in the headwaters of the Allegheny and other Ohio River tributaries. Sometimes, she says, the gratification is instant.

“On Dutchman Run, a [Pennsylvania] dam removal project we did to help restore brook trout, I was standing by the stream after the bulldozers were shut off,” she says. “Within 15 minutes, I saw the first trout approach the place where the dam had been. And then it took off upstream like a little silver streak.” Even so, she says, funding is limited. “We’re able to fund about 10 to 15 percent of the requests that we get. So, yes, additional funds would be a huge help.”

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An image of an acid mine drainage site in Ohio.

FROM PAIN TO PAINT Acid mine drainage (above, in Oreton, Ohio) leaks heavy metals into the environment. True Pigments is turning iron oxide from the discharge into oil paints used by artists including John Sabraw of Athens, Ohio (below).

Some groups have gotten creative in identifying resources from unlikely sources. Take True Pigments, an initiative from the Ohio-based sustainable economic development nonprofit Rural Action. Acid mine drainage leaking into waterways from coal mines can render streams incapable of supporting life for hundreds of years. According to Michelle Shively MacIver, director of product development for True Pigments, one such site releases 1.4 million gallons of polluted water into Ohio’s Sunday Creek every day. Most treatment systems collect the drainage, treat it and pump it back into the ground. But Rural Action saw an opportunity.

An image of John Sabraw painting in his studio.

“We wondered, Can we make the treatment pay for itself?” Shively MacIver says. True Pigments has been removing iron oxide from the discharge and selling it to an artist supply company, which turns the byproduct into pigment for oil paints. Since March 2020, the startup has sold 7,000 paint sets as proof of concept, but the market is much greater, Shively MacIver says. Iron oxide can be used in a variety of construction materials, from house paint to masonry. She believes sales of iron oxide would cover the operating costs of a proposed Rural Action treatment plant but not the $15 million needed to build it. Such a plant could clean up seven of the estimated 1,300 miles of Ohio streams polluted by acid mine drainage, she says.

Despite the litany of threats, there’s cause for hope, Rosser agrees. “Our vision calls for a transformation of the image of the Ohio River, from solely a working and industrialized river to a river system that is supporting thriving ecosystems and vibrant communities,” she says.

Tanner Yess also sees the river as a powerful force. “The Ohio River doesn’t care about our boundaries,” says Yess, co-founder of Groundwork Ohio River Valley, a nonprofit working to counter racism, redlining, regulatory neglect and economic and environmental exploitation. “A young person in Cincinnati or Covington, Kentucky, is connected to the world through the Ohio River. It’s our lifeblood.”

NWF priority

A Base for the Basin

With the Ohio River Basin Alliance, Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission and other partners, the National Wildlife Federation is crafting a restoration plan to address ecological challenges, reverse environmental injustices, promote Indigenous clean water priorities and support local economies. Learn more.

Read more about writer Randy Edwards.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

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