In many ways, the Ohio River is an unsung resource for the region it serves. The Ohio’s near-thousand-mile course flows through Pennsylvania and five other states before emptying into the Mississippi. It’s a source of drinking water for more than five million people. But its long legacy as a “working river” has also made it the most polluted in the country. Today, many cities and towns along the Ohio are rethinking their relationship to the river—and weighing how a large-scale restoration effort could be critical to the region’s future. But just how do we get there? As part of our Headwaters series, we talked with the National Wildlife Federation’s Collin O’Mara, who’s hoping to ignite a new way of thinking about one of the region’s most vital natural resources.
The Allegheny Front: So tell us why the National Wildlife Federation is turning its attention to the Ohio River.
Collin O’Mara: One of the things that we’re seeing is that there have been amazing investments made in the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay. But these investments tend to be in places that are seen as destinations: Folks plan vacations or retire or have second homes in some of these places. But we’re not seeing the same level of investments in what I would consider the “working waterways”—places like the Allegheny River leading into the Ohio River Valley, or places like the Delaware River. But 25 million people live in the Ohio River Valley Basin—that’s almost a tenth of the country. And yet we’ve seen virtually no investment of federal resources in trying to clean up the legacy pollution. The Ohio is still the most polluted waterway in the entire country. Over the last 50 years, between the Clean Water Act and reducing the direct discharge of pollutants into the water, there has been some progress. But folks don’t plan fishing vacations around going to the Allegheny, even though cities are seeing investments in their riverfronts as a way to revitalize their downtowns. So the next thing is having that investment not stop at the river’s edge—literally. We can have the water itself become a place you can swim, fish, recreate and enjoy the benefits that come from that.
LISTEN: “Cleaning Up America’s Most Polluted River”
AF: There have been some efforts to cooperate around water in this region, but they have largely stalled. So what can be done to move that effort forward?
CO: We’ve been working with some of the mayors and different advocacy groups in the region, trying to just begin talking about the Ohio River as a system and [develop] a vision for the entire watershed. There’s been some good work in places like the Beaver River; there are a bunch of groups in Kentucky working on the Green or the Cumberland. So we’re trying to unite those voices under a common vision. This has been done in places like the Chesapeake or the Great Lakes. So it’s really about trying to have a vision so folks are as excited about restoring these iconic waterways that, in many ways, help build our country.
AF: Well, it seems like the most exciting thing happening on the Ohio recently is the ethane cracker facility that Shell is planning to build near Pittsburgh. People are excited about the jobs and the economic development around that. How do you strike a balance between restoration and economic development?
CO: So often, in places that are working waterways, we basically treat these water bodies as simply a support for larger industrial facilities. And you see it with crackers or refineries, and you have many of those across the entire basin. Those jobs are important, but we don’t value the economic loss when you degrade these waterways. Right now across America, the outdoor economy is about a $646 billion economy. It employs more than six million people. And that puts it on par with many of the largest industries in the country. A lot of those jobs are water-dependent jobs related to fishing or swimming or outdoor activities. So one of the cases we’re trying to make is that it doesn’t have to be “either/or.” The technologies exist now that we can actually have some industrial facilities and still not have to contaminate the waterway. The old dichotomy of having to choose between the economy or the environment really isn’t true, and there are places in the country that are making those choices that they want both. What we’re trying to figure out is how do we work with leaders across the region to prioritize this. The cities are already making investments. In Pittsburgh, for instance, there’s obviously a focus on the fact that the water is what separates Pittsburgh from other cities in the region. So the question is, how do you take the next step?
AF: So do you imagine a scenario where Pittsburgh is more like the Chesapeake Bay—where it’s more of a recreational hub and that becomes a viable alternative to more industry?
CO: I absolutely do. Obviously, you have PCBs and dioxins and other things we have to get out of the water column that are legacy pollution. It’s not cheap, but it can be done. But there are amazing opportunities. That’s the reason why Frank Lloyd Wright chose Falling Water as a place to build his flagship structures. There are beautiful things in western Pennsylvania and most of them relate to water. And having more regional pride and having greater value placed upon the importance of those assets at least lays the foundation for this becoming a greater priority. It’s not something that any individual city or governor can do. But if you can actually build these coalitions, they become non-partisan in a way that it becomes simply a “value” and an ongoing priority. For example, a few years ago, President Obama proposed a reduction in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding. There was such bipartisan outrage that it was immediately put back higher than what the original budget amount was. Given the political power that’s in the region between Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky—I mean, you have some of the most important people in Washington that live along this watershed—there’s no reason why we can’t have significant investment go into the region.
AF: So are you getting buy-in from some of the people you’ve been talking to?
CO: I am. But the challenge is there’s a little bit of disbelief. One of the things about the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes is they’re seen as tourist destinations. And with these working waterways, it’s almost like they can’t envision what it could be. I’d say I’m getting a fairly lukewarm reception. No one is slamming a door in my face. But no one is jumping to the front of the line saying we need to do this right now.
AF: So regional water planning is kind of an interesting issue for the National Wildlife Federation to take on. Tell us why you think it’s such an important issue.
CO: You know, when we’re trying to address the challenges in the years ahead—issues on climate or issues around drought and fire—our salvation could be rooted in our natural resources, and particularly water. It’s great to talk about the Chesapeake and the Great Lakes. But a water body like the Ohio or the Delaware is actually more relevant to conversations that we’re having in the upper parts of the Mississippi or even some of the issues in the Mississippi River delta. If we can show progress in the Ohio River Valley, we can improve the quality of life for 25 million people and create a ton of jobs and a ton of investment. And frankly, if we can get it done there—in a place that has a lot of legacy pollution—we can basically show we can make [it] work anywhere. So it’s not just about the wildlife and habitat and the short-term gains. It’s really about showing that, as a country, we care about these resources—and by investing in them today, we are going to set ourselves up for another American century.
Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with The Allegheny Front.