Pollution Threats to the Ohio River
There is a long history of pollution control efforts on the Ohio River. These efforts include the creation of the Ohio River Investigation Station in 1913 which was our nation’s first basin-wide pollution control strategy; the federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 which created ORSANCO (Link here) ; and most recently, the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. These combined efforts along with the decline of some of the early industries that contributed to the degradation of the river, including many of the older steel mills, have led to the improved conditions in the Ohio River that we see today.
Direct discharge of industrial and municipal wastes from known sources is referred to as point source pollution, and is more easily regulated today than in the past. This type of pollution was once the biggest cause for concern, but current regulations have greatly reduced this threat to Ohio River water quality.
Today, most Ohio River pollution results from land uses such as construction, logging, urbanization, mining, and agriculture.
Construction and logging practices that fail to factor in watershed impacts can cause severe localized erosion and far-reaching sedimentation. Many conservation practices such as sediment barriers, seeding, drainage diversions, and avoiding critical areas are often required under EPA construction permits. However, logging operations typically do not require permits, thus efforts to protect watersheds are voluntary. Information regarding best management practices and watershed protection practices can be obtained from local forestry or EPA offices.
By far, agricultural activities contribute the most sedimentation, pesticides, fertilizer, and manure to the watershed. Most of the prime agriculture land in the Ohio River drainage was once forested which reduced runoff, contributing to clear water conditions and excellent aquatic habitat. Maintaining buffer strips of vegetation and trees along stream shorelines (riparian corridors) may be the single most important practice landowners can use to protect our streams. These vegetated areas not only reduce erosion, but also provide wildlife habitat and shade that help maintain cool water temperatures during the summer months.
Reduced tillage practices, such as conservation till and no-till, and enrollment of land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have undoubtedly played a major part in contributing to improved water quality in the Ohio River drainage. Some federal program crops, such as corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and peanuts, require the implementation of a conservation plan to reduce soil erosion and discourage highly erodible lands from being placed in crop production. More detailed agricultural stewardship practices can be obtained from local and federal agricultural agency offices.
Heavy rainfalls regularly wash contaminants from buildings, streets, vehicles, and parking lots directly into the river. Combined sewer systems which transport both sewage and storm water can cause treatment plants to overload, resulting in the discharge of untreated sewage. These outdated systems and the resulting discharge are thought to be responsible for high bacteria levels that are often detected immediately following heavy rainfalls, especially during the summer months. Underground seepage from septic and storage tanks also contributes to pollution loads and is almost impossible to trace.
Abandoned and active mines produce sediments, suspended metals, and acidic water, impacting aquatic life. The very nature of conducting mining operations in hilly terrain makes it difficult to totally eliminate all run-off. Modern mining and reclamation regulations have helped reduce watershed threats associated with this industry. Through reclamation of old abandoned mines is ongoing, we can expect some negative environmental impacts to persist for many years.
It will take a collective effort to reduce Nonpoint source pollution and its effects on watersheds.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) was initiated as a result of the Ashland Oil spill, which disrupted community water supplies, closed schools and businesses, and caused serious ecological damage. This spill clearly showed the need for additional federal efforts to prevent oil discharges of such magnitude. The OPA mandates that certain facilities prepare oil spill response plans that meet stringent guidelines. These plans require facility owners to maintain the availability of personnel and equipment necessary to respond to a worst-case discharge situation (i.e., the largest foreseeable discharge under adverse weather conditions).
Thermal pollution from heated discharges can attract large numbers of fish during cool weather, as well as discourage fish use during warm periods. Heated discharges also create warm habitats that can permit exotic species to survive our cold winters. The most significant sources of thermal pollution on the main stem of the Ohio River are coal-fired power plants, which require large volumes of cooling water to efficiently generate electricity. Fish can also be entrapped and entrained at those facilities.