The Ohio River Crosses State Lines. Does It Need a Regional Agreement that Does Too?

Over the past few months, our Headwaters series has been exploring the future of the Ohio River. And many say that to transform the river’s longstanding reputation as a “working river,” we’ll need better cooperation across state lines. For years, regional, multi-state agreements have been used to regulate the use of water and coordinate water quality efforts in places like the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Great Lakes. So we asked the Ohio Environmental Council’s Kristy Meyer to paint us a picture of how that might work in the Ohio River Basin. (Photo: Kara Lofton)

The Allegheny Front: First, let’s talk about how this works in the Great Lakes region. The U.S. states and Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes have an agreement called the Great Lakes Compact. So how did that come about?

Kristy Meyer: Well, it actually came about because of a crisis. A group that was over in Asia drew up a contract with Canada about taking a huge bladder, putting a bunch of water in it and shipping it back over to thirsty parts of Asia. And people around the Great Lakes heard about this and there was a big uproar. Congress did, through a piece of legislation, kind of give the Great Lakes states their marching orders on trying to figure out with Canada how we would manage the waters of the Great Lakes. And the governors of the Great Lakes came together and came up with nine priorities — the first one being the Great Lakes Compact, so we could keep the water in the region; and the other eight dealing with Great Lakes restoration and protection, which has now turned into the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

AF: You know, under the Trump administration, there’s been a lot of talk so far about dialing back regulations. And that story about shipping water to Asia now sounds like something that might actually be possible.

KM: I think we’ll have to wait and find out. What I would say is that we have proof that over the years, regulation has spurred job growth. And no longer should we be having the conversation about the environment versus the economy. Because really, if the environment is doing well, so is the economy.

LISTEN: A Regional Vision for the Ohio River Watershed

AF: So do you think we need something like the Great Lakes Compact in the Ohio River watershed. What difference could that make?

KM: If we’re talking about managing the water for the purposes of making sure that the region will continue to have the water for drinking water, economic purposes, swimming, etc., then I think a water compact could certainly help the region. From all of the discussion I’ve had with other folks, it would likely look different than the Great Lakes Compact. Taking a big step back, what I think we need to do is understand the whole Ohio River watershed; do more of a comprehensive look at it to understand all the layers and how everything is intertwined. We see that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and some scientists and businesses have started the Ohio River Basin Alliance. And then there are scientists working on fish and how we bring back the fish population. And these are great things that are happening. But it is missing that larger component of the nonprofit side. And I think collectively, if the nonprofits in the region could come together and work with these governmental agencies, scientists and local community leaders, we could start to address some of these problems. One of the obstacles to getting this larger comprehensive look done is a lack of resources. We see a lot of focus and funding going to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

AF: And why is that? Are they more visible, or do they have more powerful advocates?

KM: Well, the Great Lakes is easier to understand, right? It’s a more “closed” system. It’s not closed, but you think of it as being contained. For example, I was talking to a colleague, and I said, ‘Oh, you know the Ohio River touches New York.’ And they were like, ‘Kristy, I don’t think you understand the Ohio River at all.’ And I was like, ‘Well, let’s pull out the Ohio River watershed map so that you can see how big the Ohio River is.’ I think people have a hard time understanding big river problems because they’re not closed like a lake. But I also think that for many years, the Ohio River has kind of been ignored. It’s really been seen as a place for commerce.

AF: Tell us more about that. Is there more room for recreation to be an economic driver in the Ohio River region?

KM: Absolutely. In the state of Ohio, tourism and travel is a $40 billion industry. Just eight counties along the lake generate more than $12 billion of that. It is a very viable travel and tourism industry with a huge domino effect. So I think there is a lot of opportunity for the Ohio River. I think we need to broaden out a bit and understand that the same way of doing things since the start of the industrial revolution is not the way forward in all cases. We need to have this kind of “all of the above” approach of making sure the water and river is accessible for drinking water, manufacturing, tourism and all of those opportunities.

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Kristy Meyer is managing director of the Natural Resources Program at the Ohio Environmental Council. This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.