Ohio River Named Among America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2023

April 18, 2023

Federal Investment Needed to Protect Public Health Along the Ohio River 

Contact: Heather Taylor-Miesle, American Rivers, htaylor-miesle@americanrivers.org, 202-423-4794 

Washington — American Rivers today named the Ohio River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers®, citing that a lack of federal designation and investment leaves this vital river and watershed vulnerable. The Ohio River is the backbone of the environment, the economy, the culture, and the history for the communities that live along the mainstream and throughout the Basin. The Ohio River watershed is the primary drinking water source for over 5 million people.  

“The Ohio River is one of the most vibrant, resilient ecosystems in the country, as evidenced by its ability to support a rich assemblage of aquatic life and offers recreational opportunities for the surrounding communities, on top of serving as a major transportation corridor and drinking water source. The protection of this valuable resource against current threats is absolutely critical and essential to our region,” says Chris Lorentz, vice-chair of the Ohio River Basin Alliance. 

The Ohio River Basin is one of the largest watersheds in the nation and drains from areas affected by environmental pollution from heavy industrialization, including mining and resource extraction for energy development, chemical production, and durable goods manufacturing. This has resulted in significant discharges of toxic chemicals, including both legacy chemicals (such as mercury and dioxins) and chemicals of emerging concern (especially PFAS and Gen-X chemicals) as well as acid mine drainage. These forms of pollution threaten human and ecosystem health.  

This vulnerability is most recently exemplified by the chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting from a Norfolk Southern train derailment which created harmful air pollution and leaked hazardous butyl acrylate into the Ohio River. This chemical disaster has left the future for an entire village uncertain. 

To protect the Ohio River and the millions who depend on it, local partners and residents in the Ohio River Valley, with support from American Rivers, are calling on Congress. The federal government must designate the river as a protected water system and commit to significant, sustained federal funding for both the Ohio River Basin Alliance (ORBA) Restoration Plan and technical upgrades for the river monitoring equipment of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO). These actions will secure general improvements to safeguard drinking water including increased baseline water monitoring and disaster preparedness. The Restoration Plan will also support the ecological well-being of the river, create ample recreation opportunities and invest in quality of life for communities throughout the watershed.  

“Unlike the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, and the Everglades, the Ohio River is not designated as a federally protected water system. With federal designation, the door is opened to critical funding for restoration. Public health protections, including investments in ecosystem restoration and technical upgrades for water monitoring systems, are required to safeguard the drinking water of the over 5 million people who depend on the watershed for their primary drinking water source.” – Heather Sprouse, Ohio River Coordinator, West Virginia Rivers Coalition. 

“Decades of environmental pollution have threatened the health of the Ohio River, and we’re proud to be joining many different stakeholders to fight for its future. It is absolutely essential that we guarantee real investment in the Ohio River for the many communities along its shores,” said Chris Tavenor, Associate General Counsel for the Ohio Environmental Council. 

The word “Ohio” comes from the Seneca name for the river, Ohiyo, which means “it is beautiful.” Despite a legacy of heavy industrialization, the river continues to support rich history and culture and provides critical habitat for 150 species of fish and other aquatic life including many endangered species. The rivers, streams and tributaries are a source of recreation for communities throughout the watershed. Each year, the Ohio River Way hosts Paddlefest, which is the largest paddling gathering in the U.S. River enthusiasts paddle 250 miles of river between Portsmouth, OH and Louisville, KY. 

“The economic future of communities along the Ohio River depends in large part on the protection and restoration of the water system,” said Ben Hunkler, Communications Manager with the Ohio River Valley Institute. “Research shows a cleaner, greener economy can create family-sustaining jobs, rejuvenate declining populations, spur much-needed economic growth, and improve quality of life in distressed communities across the Ohio River Valley. A clean, healthy river is a critical component of that transition.” 

The Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, flowing southwest and defining boundaries of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois before flowing into the Mississippi River in Cairo, Illinois.  

“Although the Ohio River spans many miles, it unites everyone; from those that draw their drinking water to those that recreate along its many diverse landscapes. We must protect the river so that we, and future generations, can have a fishable, swimmable, drinkable Ohio River.” – Jess Friss, Director of Community Programs, Three Rivers Waterkeeper 

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.  

Other rivers in the region listed as endangered in recent years include Ohio’s Big Darby Creek (2019) and Grand River (2012). The Ohio River was listed in 1992, highlighting the threat of dams. 

America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2023  

  1. Colorado River, Grand Canyon (Arizona):  

THREAT: Climate change, outdated water management  
AT RISK: Ecosystem health, reliable water delivery, regional economy  

  1. Ohio River (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois):  

THREAT: Pollution, climate change  
AT RISK: Clean water for 5 million people  

  1. Pearl River (Mississippi):  

THREAT: Dredging and dam construction  
AT RISK: Clean drinking water, local and downstream communities, fish and wildlife habitat  

  1. Snake River (Idaho, Oregon, Washington):  

THREAT: Four federal dams  
AT RISK: Tribal treaty rights and culture, endangered salmon runs, rural and local communities  

  1. Clark Fork River (Montana):  

THREAT: Pulp mill pollution  
AT RISK: Public health, fish and wildlife  

  1. Eel River (California):  

THREAT: Dams  
AT RISK: Fish and wildlife, tribal culture and sustenance  

  1. Lehigh River (Pennsylvania):  

THREAT: Poorly planned development  
AT RISK: Clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, rural and local communities, open space  

  1. Chilkat and Klehini rivers (Alaska):  

THREAT: Mining  
AT RISK: Bald eagle, fish, and wildlife habitat, tribal culture and sustenance  

  1. Rio Gallinas (New Mexico):  

THREAT: Climate change, outdated forest and watershed management  
AT RISK: Clean drinking water, farming, watershed functionality  

  1. Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia, Florida):  

THREAT: Mining  
AT RISK: Fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands, water quality and flow

About American Rivers  
American Rivers is championing a national effort to protect and restore all rivers, from remote mountain streams to urban waterways. Healthy rivers provide people and nature with clean, abundant water and natural habitat. For 50 years, American Rivers staff, supporters, and partners have shared a common belief: Life Depends on Rivers. For more information, please visit AmericanRivers.org