Fishing near falls along the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania.
Seated at the head of the Ohio River and surrounded by the mineral-rich Allegheny Mountains, Pittsburgh has a deep history of industry and transportation. The city was an industrial powerhouse for nearly two centuries with steel, iron and coal at the center of its economic vitality.
The Steel City has experienced significant changes over the past half-century. Technological advancements and changes in manufacturing led to huge shifts in the city’s social and economic foundation. Today, Pittsburgh is one of the country’s top destinations and most livable cities, with renowned museums, parks, medical centers and academic institutions. Economically, the city has diversified and serves as a hub for industries ranging from banking to consumer products to technology.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has oversight of the infrastructure supporting Pittsburgh’s industrial and transportation history. That means managing water storage and releases from 16 reservoirs and 23 locks and dams for navigation, water quality, recreation, flood control, hydropower and other purposes.
In response to the changing face of the city, the Corps has consulted The Nature Conservancy about updating water control plans—how much and how often water is released—to better support fish, mussels, and vegetation downstream. One example includes working together along the Youghiogheny River, downstream of the dam that is located near Confluence, PA. The Corps manages the dam for multiple purposes, including recreation, water quality, hydropower and flood control.
Science Leads the Way
As part of its work with the Corps, the Conservancy first identified the Youghiogheny’s baseline flows—an estimate of the magnitude and timing of water volume in the river as if the dam were not in place. In contrast with what nature needs and expects, current operations have created lower and more stable spring water levels, higher summer levels, more variable water levels in the fall, and—in some years—winter water levels that are below those of early fall.
In July 2014, the Conservancy presented the Corps with initial recommendations for modifying water releases to better mimic nature and address the needs of fish, mussels, and other aquatic plants and animals. Today continues to seek a balance between altering traditional dam releases to meet wildlife needs while still addressing the primary functions of Youghiogheny Dam. The partnership also extends to other areas within the Ohio River basin.