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The Ohio River Basin is vast – it includes parts of 15 states and is home to 25 million people. But unlike many other regions, like the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, the Ohio River has no basin-wide plan or strategy to protect and develop its resources.

The Ohio River Basin Alliance (ORBA), is in the process of changing that. The group, along with agencies, universities, and economic development and environmental organizations has created a five-year plan for the basin. It encompasses everything from barge traffic and clean water, to health ecosystems and river recreation. 

The plan, which will be considered for endorsement by agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and ORSANCO, a  multi-state commission that monitors water quality in the Ohio River. It is open for public comment until May 15. 

The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant spoke with ORBA steering committee vice chair Harry Stone, who is a retired ecologist, with a nearly 40 year career in business and project management. 

LISTEN to their conversation

Julie Grant [Grant]: What is the Ohio River Basin Alliance?

Harry Stone [Stone]: It actually came about because the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. EPA and ORSANCO felt that there was a need for an organization that could develop collaboration in the basin, for the Ohio River Basin, that would allow it to speak with a unified voice that was lacking in the Ohio River region. 

Grant: There is already ORSANCO, this organization that came about as a multi-state agreement many decades ago that monitors water quality in the river. They had basin wide regulations, and then [last summer] the [Orsanco] board voted to make those voluntary. Is ORBA stepping in to replace those pollution control standards that Orsanco recently dropped?

Stone: That’s a great question, and the truth is that ORBA is completely non-regulatory, we are not about standards. What we’re trying to do is look for the places where there’s unity, where we in the Ohio River Basin agree that there is a need. It’s really about identifying those priorities and making sure we give those priorities the attention they need and the funding they need. 

Grant: Over the past year ORBA has been creating a plan, which includes general ideals, values and goals, and some more specific strategies for getting to those. What would you say is the major goal for the next five years? 

Stone: Let me just clarify that for the last 10 years we, ORBA, have been having collaborative meetings, summits, on an annual basis throughout the basin to identify priorities. Within the last year, we were able to reach an agreement where ORSANCO and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With funding, $150,000 from the state of Kentucky, we were able to do a planning process for the basin. So to be very clear, this is not ORBA’s plan, nor is it ORSANCO’s plan, nor is it the Corps of Engineers’ plan. Rather, this was a funding opportunity that would allow us to find out from the myriad organizations in the basin what are the top priorities and what are the things we need to be pursuing that could help address key issues within the basin.

Grant: According to the plan, there are 15 states that are involved in the Ohio River Basin. This is such a huge area, why have one plan for the whole area? Why not separate this into smaller regions and let each take care of its own?

Stone: Watersheds don’t care about states or artificial regional boundaries or that kind of thing. Water within a watershed all flows down into the rivers of that watershed, and eventually in our watershed. Whether it’s the Tennessee River or the Cumberland River, they all flow into the Ohio River, which then flows into the Mississippi River. 

“Our first goal is to be the nation’s most valuable river transportation and commerce corridor”

So if you’re trying to take care of things where you have this natural interconnectivity, the way to do it is to look at it holistically. For example, if you go addressing flood risk concerns up in Pittsburgh, you may in fact create an increased problem downstream. Or if there are water quality issues that are up in Pittsburgh, those then flow downstream to become drinking water issues in Cincinnati or in Louisville.

See more of our coverage of the Ohio River in our Good River and Headwaters series.

Grant: On the Ohio River there are so many different interests. You’ve got industry, you’ve got outdoor recreation, you’ve got drinking water supply. So how does the plan address these varying issues? 

Stone: Our first goal is to be the nation’s most valuable river transportation and commerce corridor. So that directly addresses the barge industry. It directly addresses the desire to increase commerce along the river. 

Another of our goals is to have world-class nature-based recreation opportunities. This is looking at increasing water trails and land trails, but it’s also looking at working with the communities along the river and the businesses along the river to create the amenities that would be used by people who are canoeing and hiking, those types of things are directly related to commerce and to increasing jobs and to the economy. 

Grant: When you talk in the plan about a goal of healthy and productive ecosystems, how do you address that? How do you see that moving forward strategically in this plan? 

Stone: The healthy, productive ecosystems is actually one of the key areas that was identified back in 2009 at the initial summit when they said we have got to have a unified voice for this basin because we’re getting left out of stuff at a national level. 

“We were getting nothing…and we are a large, important, biologically diverse ecosystem.”

For example, at that time, the Great Lakes watershed just north of us had received more than $400 million for an ecological restoration program, and they have continued to get money on that magnitude in the decade since. Similarly to our east, the Chesapeake Bay watershed gets substantial funding directed at ecosystem restoration as part of federal geographic ecological restoration programs. 

We were getting nothing. We still get nothing in those geographic programs. And we are a large, important, biologically diverse ecosystem. So a key initiative within the healthy, productive ecosystems [section of the ORBA plan] is to identify the needs of this basin, many of which are just like the Great Lakes in terms of invasive species and many other things, identify what those are and pull together a collaboration to work toward a restoration program for this very diverse, very important part of the nation’s water-based ecosystems. 

Rethinking ORSANCO: How the Agency’s Role as Steadfast Defender of the Ohio River Has Changed Over Time

Grant: Your public comment period is coming to an end in mid-May. What happens from here?

Stone: ORBA will begin working to move forward this strategy, and to do so ORBA is reorganizing around six working groups, one working group for each goal area. 

We are identifying key people for whom that goal area is a strategic focus, it’s what they do for a living, to be the working group leads. And then we are identifying other experts, other people, for whom this area is strategic to constitute a working group. 

For some of the working groups, for example, the abundant clean water, a lot of that work will be done by ORSANCO in their existing advisory committee structure with the addition of input from the Tennessee River and Cumberland River folks. So in that case, a lot of the work is done externally through an existing organization. And that’s going to be true of a lot of these goals. We haven’t created these out of nothing. A lot of these are things other organizations are already pursuing. 

For other goals, like the healthy and productive ecosystems [section of the ORBA plan], the National Wildlife Federation has stepped forward and are providing us a true expert who has worked on restoration initiatives in other parts of the country, that will be serving in that capacity as the working group lead. And in that case, there’s going to be a lot of work that’s going to be going on, creating that broader collaboration across the entire basin that does not currently exist. 

So we’ll be working in a variety of ways, each of the goal areas will have a working group focused on it, much of the work will be done by other organizations. Where there aren’t other organizations to do the strategic actions, ORBA will take the lead in facilitating the collaboration that will make that kind of work possible.  

A Bold New Vision for Restoring America’s Most Polluted River