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Is the Ohio River Dead?

Since people settled in the area, the Ohio River has been a major hub for transportation. But despite its significance, it’s not in the best shape.

Is it really dead, though? Or can we still enjoy camping, swimming, and fishing along its banks?

Today, we’re exploring whether or not it’s safe to be in and on the Ohio River.

Let’s dive in!

A manufacturing facility or factory on the river. Many people blame industrial plants for polluting the Ohio River.
Many people blame industrial plants for polluting the Ohio River

About the Ohio River

Spanning six states and nearly 1,000 miles, the Ohio River is a crucial part of North America’s ecosystem. More than five million people rely on it for drinking water. And nearly 25 million, or 10% of the US population, live in its watershed. 

The Ohio starts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet. From there, these waters flow westward until they meet the Mississippi. 

In the early days of European exploration, different groups sought control of the waterway. French and English settlers battled each other and Native populations for dominion over the area. Throughout the 19th century, it was a critical mode of transportation for farmers and other manufacturers to get their products to the Mississippi River.

Today, commercial traffic has only increased. Over 230 million tons of goods are shipped along the river each year. Along the way, they’ll pass through 20 dams that help maintain water levels. 

Despite heavy transit up and down the river, people are still drawn to the water. That said, you’ll probably want to take a look at recent water quality reports in your area before jumping in. 

A more recent cause of pollution in the Ohio River

How Polluted Is the Ohio River?

Unfortunately, the Ohio is considered the most polluted river in the country. And many point the finger at industrialization. 

The Clean Water Act is supposed to keep mercury and other heavy metals from entering our waterways. However, power plants have variances allowing them to dump these pollutants into the Ohio.

It isn’t just corporate entities ruining summer fun. Heavy rains overwhelm sewer systems and treatment facilities. Just about any time there’s significant rainfall, you can expect bacteria levels in the water to increase. And as temperatures rise, toxic algae blooms are increasingly common. 

A multi-state initiative formed the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) to monitor water quality and set standards for the river’s health. But some folks who want to enjoy the river insist the organization isn’t doing enough. 

You might want to try camping around lakes in the area instead: 7 Best Lakes in Ohio (and Awesome Nearby Campsites).

Is the Ohio River Safe For Swimming?

Whether or not the Ohio River is safe for swimmers depends on various factors. Location and weather are key aspects. For example, stormwater causes sewage overflows during rainy months. You won’t want to take a dip after heavy rainfall or swim near industrial plants in any season. 

ORSANCO monitors harmful microbe levels from April to October as part of its Contact Recreation Bacteria Program. Similarly, their Harmful Algae Bloom Program keeps an eye on toxic aquatic organisms.

Pro Tip: Check ORSANCO’s website for the most recent numbers before diving in.

Can You Drink the Water?

Millions depend on the Ohio River for drinking water, although it only reaches consumers after significant treatment. 

You’ll find plenty of water testing stations along the Ohio and its tributaries. Monitoring systems alert officials to organic compounds that shouldn’t be present. But some substances sneak through the cracks.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are increasing, and there’s debate about managing their presence. We know these “forever chemicals” can cause health problems like kidney and liver disease, reproductive issues, and cancer. 

That said, many claim they don’t affect the environment, which has left officials in a stalemate. 

It’s possible to remove these compounds from drinking water. Unfortunately, not all treatment plants take this extra step. Contact your local facility if you’re unsure what they filter from your water. In many places, this information is on your monthly bill.

It’s not just the Ohio River that’s badly polluted: The 7 Dirtiest Rivers in the USA.

Can You Fish in the Ohio River?

Health professionals have long touted the benefits of eating a fish-rich diet. However, the benefits and risks vary based on the species and where you catch them. Realize that certain contaminants will still be present in the meat even after it’s cooked.

Anglers, according to the Ohio EPA, you should limit your consumption to one meal a month for large fish like northern pike and steelhead trout. If you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system, consider eating even less.

You’ll want to avoid bottom-feeders, too, as they tend to consume more pollutants than other fish. Finally, be sure to remove the skin and fat from your catch before cooking it. Contaminants are often more concentrated in these, so scrapping them is your best bet. 

A red tailed catfish in aquarium. Catfish may not be the best choice when fishing in the Ohio River.
Catfish may not be the best choice when fishing in the Ohio River

Is the Water Quality Getting Better or Worse?

While you’re right to be cautious about the river’s water quality, it’s much better than it was in the past. In the 1950s and 60s, oil slicks along the waterway caught on fire over a dozen times in Ohio alone. That’s right. Chemicals and debris erupted in flames on the water!

The federal government passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 as a regulatory measure against pollutants. This law sets limits on the level of contaminants allowed in our waterways and controls how industrial facilities dispose of waste. However, the law hasn’t evolved to keep up with modern problems like PFAS. 

We can’t say what the future holds for the Ohio River. Nevertheless, those of you who enjoy fishing, swimming, and recreating on the water should keep a close eye on the numbers. After all, nothing will ruin a summertime outing quite like a case of E. coli.

Instead of getting in the Ohio River, explore the area from above: Cincinnati River Cruise Travel Guide.

The Ohio River Isn’t Dead Yet

The Ohio River is certainly in better shape than it used to be. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it’s in the clear. Industrial runoff, wastewater, and other substances continue to contaminate the waterway. For now, you’ll have to swim and fish at your own risk.

We might camp around the river, but we’ll probably steer clear of swimming and fishing in it until pollution levels recede. We won’t hold our breath, though.

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