Ohio River

A Bold New Vision For Restoring America's Most Polluted River

Oct 20, 2016
Shannon Tompkins / Flickr

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 5 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 seeing how a large-scale restoration effort could be critical to the region’s future. But just how do we get there?

Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA


On a windy June day, Don Smith is proudly giving a tour of a former Jones and Laughlin steel mill site in Pittsburgh. 

Chris Squire / 90.5 WESA

The Allegheny River remains frozen, and there is still ice on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers, though barge traffic is getting through. Now, with rain forecast for the next couple of days the concern turns to flooding.

“There’s always a threat of flooding, particularly when you have ice and when it starts to move it can jam up in narrow valleys or behind bridges and cause water to rise behind the jam very quickly,” said Lewis Kwett, hydraulic engineer with the Pittsburgh division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

With Pittsburgh being plunged into arctic temperatures for much of February, the rivers have seen more ice than usual. Pittsburgh’s ports and waterways are among the largest inland ports in the country – so the slowdowns caused by the ice are causing some ripple effects. Locks on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers are still operating – though the ice is slowing traffic.

Flickr user Ronald Woan

State Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny) said when he was a kid, people often warned him not to get to close to Pittsburgh’s three rivers. But the polluted industrial riverfronts of generations past have slowly been replaced by family-friendly recreational opportunities and big-ticket development projects such as PNC Park and South Side Works.

Jim Grey / Flickr

The Ohio River appears on many lists as one of the nation’s most polluted waterways. In an effort to heal the river, a group of indigenous women and others will walk the span of the river starting from Point State Park on Earth Day.

“We’re going to gather some water at the confluence there, of the Ohio River, and we’re going to carry that water all the way down to where it joins the Mississippi River,” said Sharon Day, walk leader and executive director of the Indigenous People’s Task Force. “And while we’re carrying it we’ll be praying and singing to the water.”