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Ohio River

Charting the Course of a River's Future

"When we think about protecting the river, we have to look at the big picture."

John Stark, freshwater conservation program manager

The Ohio River is born in Pittsburgh, where the Appalachian mountain waters of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge. Nearly a thousand miles later, the Ohio meets up with the Mississippi, at the aptly named Cairo (think Nile), Illinois.

Along the way, as it snakes through the heart of the country, the Ohio River picks up tributary waters from 14 states, where topography ushers highland waters down a diverse gradient of forest, grassland, farmland, and development.

“The drainage basin covers about 200,000 square miles,” says John Stark, the Conservancy’s freshwater conservation program manager in Ohio. “When we think about protecting the river, we have to look at the big picture.”

For the Conservancy, this type of landscape-level protection effort requires not only strengthening the bonds of scientists from within the organization, but also forging partnerships outside. That’s why Conservancy scientists teamed up with state and federal agencies, as well as a host of nonprofits, as part of The Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership. “Our goal with the Fish Habitat Partnership was to develop a conservation plan for most of the Ohio River basin,” Stark says. “The Conservancy led planning efforts with representatives of more than 50 agencies and conservation groups that resulted in a strategic plan for conservation and restoration.

Years of experience have taught the Conservancy a thing or two about freshwater conservation but the scope of threats facing the Ohio River creates formidable challenges. There are a number of stresses affecting the system, including legacy mining problems in the east, impacts of dams throughout much of the basin, and nutrient and sedimentation issues in the west.

Although some dams provide flood control, or recreation in the reservoir pools, many are obsolete or no longer serve the purpose for which they were designed. Dams often are an obstacle to migrating fish, and they moderate the flow downstream, where many species of plants and animals have evolved to take advantage of seasonal extremes in flow.

Over the past three years, through the efforts of the Fish Habitat Partnership, more than 1,600 stream miles have been reconnected on Ohio River tributaries, either through the removal of small dams or improvements to road crossings. On the larger rivers, the Conservancy is working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the impact of Corps-operated dams along the Ohio and its major tributaries in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But dams aren’t the only thing creating problems for the river. Loss of forest cover, especially along rivers and streams, poses a serious threat as well. Development, unsustainable forest management and agriculture have chopped up large, well-functioning landscapes into pieces, leaving the river system and its associated forests with fewer and fewer opportunities to regenerate.

“Our forests, grasslands and wetlands are inextricably linked to our water supply,” Stark explains. “They help to reduce sediment buildup and pollution and provide the organic matter that provides energy to a river. The systems need one another.”

With such broad and daunting challenges facing conservationists, it’d be easy to lose focus. But Stark believes the Conservancy and its partners are on the right track. “We can take a more holistic approach to the system by working together,” Stark says. “Each of us brings something unique to the table and when we work together can achieve more than any individual entity alone”



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