Ohio River


The Ohio River is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From this point, the historic river flows 981 miles through hundreds of riverside communities toward its confluence with the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois. Six hundred and fifty-five miles of the river form Kentucky’s northern border. Throughout its bordering communities, the river provides numerous local benefits, including a source of drinking water, multiple recreational opportunities, diverse fish and wildlife habitats, and expanding opportunities for economic development and waterfront revitalization.

However, threats continue from stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, mercury deposition from coal-fired plants, industrial wastewater discharges, and millions of gallons of untreated sewage that flow into the river each year from sewer overflows. Plus, over the last two years, evidence indicates that government pollution prevention and enforcement programs are not working well. According to a report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center, the Ohio River ranks number one in the country for toxic discharge pollution.

To combat this growing problem, KWA has led a coalition of organizations working to guarantee water quality and aquatic habitat on the Ohio River since 2005. Working together we’ve been able to protect the health of people who play, swim, and fish on the river as well as the wild wife that lives in or depends on the river to survive.

A primary instrument of protection for the Ohio River basin is the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO).  Established in 1948, it is an interstate commission that operates programs designed to control and abate pollution in the Ohio River Basin.  Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia are the eight member states who work together towards improving water quality across the Ohio River and its tributaries.

Some of the ORSANCO programs include: setting waste water discharge standards; performing biological assessments; monitoring the chemical and physical properties of the waterways; conducting special surveys and studies; promoting applied research, public education and participation in these programs; coordinating emergency response activities; and facilitating the exchange of information and technology among federal agencies and member states.

In 2006 we claimed a huge victory when we argued against standards proposed by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) that would have allowed increased amounts of sewage-related bacteria into the water during peak recreation season. And our campaign against #Mercury Rising in the Ohio helped bring awareness to this toxic form of pollution. (To this day, we continue to monitor and support efforts to stop mercury contamination in the Ohio River and all Kentucky waterways.)

We also comment on various changes that ORSANCO proposes to its Pollution Control Standards.  These standards are set by ORSANCO “for industrial and municipal wastewater discharges to the Ohio River, and track certain dischargers whose effluent can seriously impact water quality.  The standards designate specific uses for the Ohio, and establish guidelines to ensure that the river is capable of supporting these uses.  To keep pace with the current issues, ORSANCO reviews the standards every three years.  As part of the review process, workshops an public hearings are held for public input.”

In 2018 a contingent officials set out to dissolve ORSANCO, saying it was an unnecessary layer of oversight. We disagreed. And we joined other regional groups that voiced their objections. Today, as in the past, KWA maintains that the Ohio River requires vigilant protection as it is the primary source of drinking water for over 5 million Americans. We simply cannot afford to relax our standards when it comes to the monitoring and testing its quality. The health of our citizens, and the wild life within the Ohio River ecosystem, depend on it.

If you wish to learn more about ORSANCO, visit them here.

Ohio River Watershed Map