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Health, Science & Environment

Ohio's major rivers see dramatic health improvement over the last 35 years

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, flanked by state Sen. Hearcel Craig, stands in front of the Scioto River to announce results from a new water quality study
George Shillcock
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, flanked by state Sen. Hearcel Craig, stands in front of the Scioto River to announce results from a new water quality study

The water quality study did not look at the Ohio River, which was listed as one of the most endangered rivers in the country in a study earlier this year.

Ohio's major waterways' water quality have vastly improved over the last 35 years per results of a new study conducted by the state over two years from 2020 to 2021.

In 1987, the study found that while only 18% of large rivers in Ohio met the state's standards for a healthy river, excluding the Ohio River, that number increased to 86% in this recent study. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel announced the results of this study Tuesday at the Scioto Mile in downtown Columbus.

DeWine said the study examined 1,300 miles of river and found 1,176 are now considered healthy. He said only five miles of river in east-central Ohio near Coshocton are considered unhealthy while another 190 miles are considered partially unhealthy.

DeWine was blunt about how bad the water quality was a few decades ago.

"A few decades ago, many of our rivers were much different than they are today. Candidly, they were unhealthy. They were contaminated sewage, oil chemicals were dumped in the water, fish were dying. Swimming in many, many places was totally out of the question," he said.

The study's top-line findings is that the biological condition of Ohio's large rivers has improved dramatically since surveys were first conducted in the 1980s and the dramatic reversal is the direct result of investments in improved wastewater infrastructure and treatment and agricultural soil conservation measures.

The other findings include:

  • Over-enrichment, characterized by excessive levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, and high biological oxygen demand, was identified as the most pervasive stressor impacting water quality and in some instances, biological condition.
  • Leftover pollution from coal mining and heavy industry is still detectable in water quality and sediment samples but it causes only modest impact to aquatic life.
  • Ohio's large rivers are getting warmer. In 1980 the average temperature was 20.5 Celsius but grew to 23.2 Celsius in this survey.
  • The Mohican River was the only river to show a significant decline in condition due to over-enrichment and sediment.

Ohio EPA Senior Scientist Bob Miltner was the lead author on the study. He said he started as an EPA intern in the 1980s and was on the fish crews where he found some rivers with no fish at all and when those rivers did have fish they had deformities.
"Some of the fish were swimming without fins. Not very well, I might add, but they were there," Miltner said. "We never see that anymore. We just don't find fish that have deformities. And that's in great part to all of these investments that we've made."

DeWine pointed to the Scioto River flowing behind him as an example of the progress the state has seen.

"At that time, out of more than 1,300 miles of Ohio's large rivers, only 18% met clean water standards, 18% of the miles right here, for example, a stretch, the Scioto was categorized among the worst in the state, the worst in the state. Now we're seeing people kayaking, fishing, walking, enjoying time along this river," DeWine said.

Vogel said the study found some notable improvements to water quality like major reductions in ammonia, total phosphorus and lead in water chemistry. It also saw downward trends in the concentration of industrial products and metals, and steady improvements in the quality and diversity of fish and macroinvertebrate communities.

DeWine attributed the improvement to Ohioans rallying together to clean up rivers, prevent chemicals, sewage, other contaminants from entering the water. He said communities have come together to address this by improving wastewater, infrastructure, agricultural practices and sewer conservation measures while volunteers are working to clean up rivers.

The governor also mentioned several initiatives the state is undertaking. He said the budget he signed earlier this month allocates $23.3 million per year into the H2Ohio Rivers Initiative to ensure the high-quality parts of the state's rivers stay high and the areas that still need improvement are improved.

"Our responsibility is to be good stewards. And good stewards simply means to continue to improve the quality of the water and continue to take make efforts," he said.

Vogel said the Ohio EPA is aware of the report saying the Ohio River is the second most endangered river in the country. She said the state continues to build wetlands and improve practices on farm fields to continue to improve
to improve tributaries to the Ohio River.

The Ohio River runs 981 miles after beginning in Pittsburgh and borders six states, including Ohio's entire southern border.

DeWine, when asked about what he thought about other states' efforts to improve water quality, DeWine laughed and said the state works with their neighbors to improve the river and compare notes.

"We all have a responsibility," he said.

DeWine and Vogel were also asked by reporters about the impacts of the train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine and whether the study took that into the data.

Vogel said those contaminants did reach the Ohio River in small amounts and cleanup still continues on the site. She said the study does not include data post-derailment.

"We do have very good data for those creeks and that watershed immediately preceding the derailment for last year. So that's great. So we're going to be able to know, you know, when indicator species are coming back in those creeks... We're able to compare it to last year's data and... we'll be able to tell the impacts of the derailment pretty quickly and very scientifically," Vogel said.

DeWine didn't say whether the study makes him optimistic or pessimistic about meeting other water quality goals.

"Summary is what we're doing matters. What we're doing helps. Is it enough? I think that's still the question we need to ask ourselves every couple of years," he said.

Health, Science & Environment Water QualityMike DeWineohio riverOhio News
George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.