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Restoring the Ohio River With Lessons from the Hudson

By: Erin Hathaway

Has anyone else ever noticed how much the Ohio River resembles the Hudson River? The two rivers represent our American history and heritage as critical pathways for exploration, industry, trade, and travel. A few interesting comparisons—the length of the Hudson River is 315 miles; the Ohio River is more than three times its length at 981 miles. The Hudson River exists mainly in New York; whereas, the Ohio borders six states. Both the Ohio and the Hudson rivers affect our oceans; the Hudson directly because it is part tidal estuary and the Ohio indirectly as it flows into the Mississippi before entering into the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, both Rivers are subject to human impacts, ranging from combined sewer overflows to engineered alterations, such as dams and seawalls.

Hudson and Ohio Rivers

There is one notable difference between these two historic rivers. Restoration of the Ohio River receives a fraction of the attention and focus as compared to the Hudson River, which has hundreds of non-profits and organizations helping to restore and protect the vital watershed and its natural resources. Founded in 2000, the Ohio River Foundation organization is dedicated to addressing the vital natural resource. Perhaps the Ohio can learn a thing or two from the Hudson.

The Ohio River is a valuable resource. Today the Ohio is perceived as a resource for industry. Many local economies and businesses rely on the river. Furthermore, the Ohio is the drinking water source for more than three million people but there are parts of the Ohio River that do not meet water quality standards. More than 1,000 points along the Ohio discharge raw sewage during rainstorms.

The Ohio can do more for us. The Ohio can offer multiple types of recreation, including kayaking, boating, fishing, swimming, and birding. The recent successful opening of Big Four Bridge in Louisville shows the high community interest in the recreational value of the river. The Ohio River also can be a major source of tourism, representing regional heritage and local identity. The river’s ecology can attract all species and become an ecological icon like the Florida Everglades. But before this can happen, we must first address the ecological health of the river.

The crowd of visitors resembles those of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Image courtesy of A|N Blog.

Many factors are affecting the health of the Ohio River, including:

  • Siltation and turbidity from barge movement and dams;
  • Non-point source pollution from stormwater runoff;
  • Direct benthic impacts from dredging activities and barge propellers;
  • Eutrophication from CSOs and agriculture runoff;
  • Hard structures prevent floodplain diversity ; and
  • Invasive species outcompete native species (the Ohio River’s freshwater mussels are proportionately the most endangered group of animals in the United States!)

The Ohio River Foundation recognizes that “The Ohio River today is not the same river it was 150 years ago, and it is not the same river it was 60 years ago.” Although we are unable to restore the conditions of 150 years ago, the organization acknowledges, “There are measures that can be taken to improve the condition of the river for the benefit of the people and wildlife.” What this means to me is that an innovative approach to restoration is key to ensure the river’s ecology coexists with its industrial activities.

Many projects have successfully restored the native ecosystems of rivers despite the adverse effects of urban development. For example, Kate Orff of SCAPE’s oyster-tecture and the other projects featured in the 2010 MOMA’s Rising Current Exhibit present an innovative approach to restore New York’s rivers. One of these innovative approaches is the habitat restoration of the East River Waterfront Eco-Park project on New York City’s Pier 35. Great Ecology is restoring the native tidal habitat using an artificial mussel bed.

Back in downtown Louisville, the urban fabric meets the water at a hard intersection. The urban runoff and combined sewer overflow (CSO) freely enter the Ohio River with no filtration. When the river rises, the water rapidly washes over concrete with no saturation picking up solids, chemicals, and nutrients. The evidence is right there floating on the surface. We are constantly abusing the Ohio River with careless actions. We are beginning to see rivers across the country from a new perspective—one that understands the value of riparian ecology, but the Ohio River seems left in the dark. 

I imagine a waterfront with wetlands reaching out into the river to protect the floodwaters and the runoff, provide habitat for birds, fish, and invertebrates, and serve as an iconic feature to Louisville. We successfully managed to integrate ecology and habitat restoration seamlessly into New York’s working harbor at Brooklyn Bridge Park. We can make it work on the Ohio River.

If you want to see ecology integrated in Louisville’s waterfront, visit Engage Louisville to share your vision. To find out more about the restoration of the Ohio River, check out the A Framework for Ecosystem Restoration of the Ohio River and its Watershed written by the Ohio River Foundation.

References:
A Framework for Ecosystem Restoration of the Ohio River and its Watershed.
The Ohio River Foundation.
Reviving New York’s rivers — with oysters! Kate Orff. TED Talks. Jan 2011.
Kenning, Chris. Big Four Bridge opens: ‘Bridge to nowhere’ reborn, finally going somewhere. The Courier-Journal.

1 Comment »

  1. The Ohio River also has precariously high levels of mercury and other heavy metals in it, both from power plants along the river, and from other industrial NPDES dischargers. And yet, the River is significantly healthier than it was 50 years ago, when it was considered to be the dump for the swine industry (and many others). Even though it’s better, it still needs much work, primarily in locations along the river, like Cincinnati, Louisville, and others that have sewer issues. Good work is starting to take shape as well, with some of these cities being forced to adopt better development practices like green infrastructure, which can help reduce sewer overflows and stormwater runoff pollution. Ohio River Foundation, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, West Virginia Rivers, and many others work throughout these states to advocate for the protect and restoration of the river!

    Great article!

    Comment by Tim Joice — March 6, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

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