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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 nd 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 recently 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 is to develop a conservation action plan for the northern part of the Ohio River basin,” Stark says. “The Conservancy’s in a unique position to lend its scientific expertise.”

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. Sedimentation, bank erosion and dams are a sampling of the stresses affecting the system, which supports not only a host of wildlife, but also millions of people
“Damming is a big concern,” Stark says. “It restricts flooding, which provides nutrients to forests and agricultural lands alongside a river, and creates an obstacle for migrating fish.”

But dams aren’t the only thing creating problems for the river. Land fragmentation throughout the basin 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.”   


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