Interstate cooperation has been crucial to restoring waters in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. But so far, there hasn’t been much interest in marshaling a regional effort to improve the heavily polluted Ohio River. Those living along its banks from Pittsburgh to Louisville are beginning to realize the increasing value of this water, and how reimagining their relationship to it could prove critical to the region’s future. This week, we kick off a new series called Headwaters to explore what this new chapter in the river’s history could look like—and how we can get there. (Photo: Jeremy Stump via Flickr)

Standing in downtown Pittsburgh, you can see where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the headwaters of the Ohio River. It’s here where the Ohio starts its near-thousand-mile journey from Pennsylvania through five other states to the Mississippi River.

Along its banks, you’ll see green spaces and fishing spots. But the Ohio is best known as one of America’s “working rivers.” It’s lined with factories and power plants, and its waters are filled with barge traffic carrying coal from Appalachia. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says the Ohio is the most polluted river in the country. Some years as much as 24 million pounds of pollution have been dumped into its waters.

But there is increasing awareness among those who live along the headwaters of the Ohio that cleaning up the river could become critical to region’s health and economic future.

LISTEN: “Marshaling a Movement to Clean up the Ohio River”

At a restaurant in the heart of a busy urban riverfront park, you can get a sense of the kind of planning it would take to write this new chapter in the Ohio’s history. The room is filled with researchers, technology geeks, water treatment experts, political and business leaders—and everyone’s talking about how water fits into the region’s economic development plans. But we’re not in Pittsburgh. This is the first annual meeting of the Cleveland Water Alliance.

Cleveland, of course, knows a thing or two about polluted waterways. It sits alongside both the Cuyahoga River—which has caught fire numerous times—and Lake Erie, which has been plagued recently with toxic algae blooms. But Cleveland is ahead of other cities when it comes to putting a value on its water—and how to leverage it to benefit the region.

“We’re starting to see the investment community pay attention,” says Alliance Executive Director Bryan Stubbs. “And so what we’re trying to do is get private capital engaged in this space. No longer is it just the state or just the city or just a watershed group. We’re now trying to have conversations with big money.”

Stubbs told Water Alliance members that the region added more than 200 water technology jobs in the last year. The organization is also working on patents related to water clean-up, and it’s launching a large-scale competition in cities around the Great Lakes to spur innovation in water technology.

High atop Pittsburgh's southern hills, you can actually watch the Ohio River take form, as the waters of the Allegheny River collide with the Monongahela. Photo: Uprooted Photographer via Flickr

High atop Pittsburgh’s southern hills, you can actually watch the Ohio River take form, as the waters of the Allegheny River collide with the Monongahela. Photo: Uprooted Photographer via Flickr

So if Cleveland’s starting to bring in big money around its water, some wonder why the same thing hasn’t happened yet in the Ohio River headwaters region.

“I don’t think it’s top of mind,” says Jerry Paytas, whose Pittsburgh-based consulting firm, Fourth Economy, recently looked into water’s role in the regional economy. “It’s not something people are thinking about. So in that regard, we’re not really valuing what the water can mean to us long term.”

The report he co-authored in 2011 nonetheless found that water is already having a big economic impact. Three thousand firms were providing components, products and services for water-related industries. And the region’s water supplies supported more than $24 billion of business in industries like agriculture, food processing, thermoelectric plants and energy.

The report also found that the Ohio River headwaters region has a unique opportunity to use its industrial strengths to grow a variety of water-related industries. But no one is yet coordinating a regional vision for the future of water.

“It’s been referred to as the ‘Wild West,’ because there’s no management of water,” says Deborah Lange, who heads up special environmental projects at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

After Paytas’ report came out, Lange helped facilitate a committee of experts from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to get the headwaters region prepared for “the future of water.” But that effort largely stalled. There just wasn’t much interest in a multi-state effort to create a vision for the watershed.

“Probably the biggest hurdle—and probably the reason we’ve been at this for 20 years—is that nobody wants another layer of regulation, approval and fees,” Lange says.

But Lange notes that many groups and agencies are already working on water issues in the headwaters region. On the state level, environmental agencies oversee permits for water withdrawals and regulate pollution. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages locks and dams on the Ohio River. There’s a group called RAIN, which collects real-time water quality monitoring data. And then there’s the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO)—which works with all eight states in the watershed to meet water quality standards.

“We have all the pieces. We need that little push to begin to coordinate,” Lange says.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains an extensive network of locks and dams on the Ohio River from Louisville to Pittsburgh. The system is critical to moving the enormous amount of freight that moves by barge and boat over the Ohio’s waters every year. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Having more regional coordination isn’t a new concept. Other watersheds have been doing it for decades. There’s the Great Lakes Compact, which governs use of water in the Great Lakes states. The Susquehanna River, the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay also all have multi-state commissions with planning authority.

But not the Ohio River.

And climate change could make that more important. While some areas of the country are expected to experience more drought, the Ohio headwaters region will likely see bigger rainfalls.

“Since we’re a water-rich area, a water-poor area could, in essence, stick a straw there at the point, and begin extracting water,” Lange says.

There’s no one lining up to suck water from the Ohio River—at least not right now. But Lange says the region should be preparing.

Community planner Jerry Paytas agrees. For him, clean water is essential to economic growth in all sectors. He says when tech companies like Google or Facebook are recruiting new employees to the region, they need quality drinking water—and a river clean enough for recreation.

“If we don’t manage the water withdrawals, if we don’t manage the water quality, it’s going to be very difficult to add people or grow the economy,” Paytas says. “So it may not be an economic driver, but it surely will become an economic break.”

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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.