Prove your humanity

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The Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and other major watersheds have long-term strategies for how to protect and restore water quality that draws billions of dollars in federal funding, But the Ohio River watershed, home to 25 million people, has no such strategy or federal funding. 

A new report provides one major step in changing that. The National Wildlife Federation and the Ohio River Basin Alliance held 31 public listening sessions across the region from June 2022 to May 2023. They wanted to find out what people are concerned about and what they want for the Ohio River watershed and its communities.

The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant spoke with Jordan Lubetkin, director of the Ohio River Restoration Program at the National Wildlife Federation.

LISTEN to their conversation

Julie Grant: Can you tell us about these public meetings?

Jordan Lubetkin: So what we did in collaboration with the Ohio River Basin Alliance is we went from the headwaters in Pittsburgh all the way down to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River dumps in the Mississippi. We went to Nashville, Tennessee, to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Louisville to Wheeling, West Virginia, to Marietta, Ohio. 

We really believe that one tenet of our democracy is that communities and people impacted by a problem deserve to have a say in the solution. So we went to those communities, big and small, to say, like, ‘Hey, what are some problems that we want to tackle?’ We want to infuse those and center those, and prioritize those in this big, bold restoration plan. 

Julie Grant: What were some of the major concerns you heard? The report talked about legacy pollution and also about some emerging concerns.

Jordan Lubetkin: We see people who are well aware of things like toxic pollution from days past but also emerging contamination from things like toxic PFAS. We’ve also seen people concerned about flooding. We’ve seen people concerned about runoff pollution. 

Not too long ago, about 600 miles of river were essentially blanketed by a toxic algal bloom. There are still fish consumption advisories along the river. There are still ‘do not swim’ advisories. There are people in this region that still don’t have access to water. They live next to a Superfund site that’s been lingering for decades, and those are some of the most toxic sites in the country. 

So people see that while we’ve made progress over the decades, there are a lot of serious threats that still remain, and they want those tackled.

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Julie Grant: A couple of other issues the report highlighted were pollution issues from farming, and also concerns about climate change and increased flooding. 

Jordan Lubetkin: I’ll start with flooding because in every community we went to, in person and even online, when you bring up flooding, everyone raises their hand. They can tell you about a specific year or a specific event. 

I think there’s widespread awareness that these sort of intense rain events in the spring are getting worse, and that we need to be doing something about it. 

On the positive side about flooding, I think there’s a lot of awareness about so-called nature-based infrastructure, how we can restore natural features, the environment, whether it’s parks or wetlands or forests, so that the ground absorbs that rainwater and stormwater before it overwhelms stormwater systems. 

I think the second issue you bring up, we’ve made a lot of strides with agriculture and productivity in being able to grow the things we need to grow. However, as animal waste and fertilizers run off of farm fields during heavy rains and overwhelm systems, they can create toxic algal blooms

The good news is people know about agriculture programs and farm conservation programs that pay farmers to take specific actions so they can protect soil quality and water quality. 

The good news is people see a lot of problems, but they also are aware of solutions. And I think what this report gets out at the end of the day we want this report to be leading to solutions that improve the water quality of this region writ large for both people and cities and towns alike.

Julie Grant: So, what do people want done?

Jordan Lubetkin: I think, first and foremost, this region feels neglected. I think there are other great ecosystems and water bodies here in the nation: the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake, the Delaware River, the Florida Everglades, the Gulf Coast. People understand that we have a great asset and a great jewel right here with the Ohio River and the waters that feed at the Tennessee River, the Cumberland, the Wabash and all these wonderful tributaries. I think what people want number one, they want this river and these waters to get the attention they deserve. 

And number two, they want to see that investment go to local communities. When we talk about what are the new economies where there are new job opportunities and the water restoration economy is one of those. 

You know, we’re talking about jobs that include engineering, including excavation and building and taking down dams. But we’re also talking about high tech. We’re also talking about biotech. We’re also talking about superconductors. We’re talking about a lot of industries that need pure clean water to do what they need to do. 

So I think when we talk about restoring our waters and restoring our communities and restoring our health, we’re also talking about restoring our local economies and our workforce. And one of the most visceral things that was said is, ‘We want those jobs going to local workers, going to local businesses and local contractors, and we want job training and workforce development so that we can make that happen.’ 

Julie Grant: And so how do you make that connection between what people are talking about in these sessions and what they say they want for the region and the ability to draw federal funds for the Ohio River area?

Jordan Lubetkin: So what we’re doing is we’re using the findings in this report to really help craft a restoration plan for the region. And that plan, there are some technical committees working on it. They get at, ‘What does the science say?’ So what we’re doing is really infusing what the science says in what communities want. 

That plan, written under the leadership of the Ohio River Basin Alliance, will be delivered to the U.S. Congress. And that will essentially be a case statement like, ‘Here’s where we are, here’s what needs to be done. And here are some solutions so we can start tackling these problems.’

And what we hope is that year over year, we’ll see a federal investment so we can start accelerating progress in tackling these issues.

Julie Grant: If this all comes to pass, what will this look like, how will the Ohio River region be different? 

Jordan Lubetkin: I think there are some big goals that we’re still not meeting. I think we need to number one, first and foremost, ensure that every single person in this region has access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water and water sanitation services. 

But how else will it look differently? Well, once we clean up these areas, let’s open up to recreation. Let’s open up to access. Let’s make sure we have connected water routes. Let’s make sure we have camping, swimming and fishing. Let’s make sure people know about this wonderful tourist destination and that this is not just tourism, it’s a great place to live. 

I think this is a place where we can have both job creation and industry, clean water and tourism, and a great quality of life.