Report Names Ohio River the Second Most Endangered U.S. River, Because It’s So Contaminated

Lizzy Rosenberg - Author

Apr. 21 2023, Published 10:41 a.m. ET

Industrial plants along the Ohio River.
Source: Getty Images

Rivers are essential to life on earth. They provide a habitat for marine life, and bring freshwater to communities across the globe. That's why it's so saddening to hear that a number of rivers across the U.S. are considered endangered, thanks to destructive human activities. In fact, the Ohio River is evidently among the top most contaminated — American Rivers, a conservation-based organization, ranked it as the second-most endangered river in the U.S.

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"Although we are saddened by this report, we are not surprised," stated Michael Washburn, Executive Director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance (KWA), via WDRB. "Despite being one of our nation’s most important waterways, the Ohio River and its basin have long been neglected. Restoring and protecting the Ohio River is not merely the environmentally responsible thing to do, but it is a critical imperative for the health and well-being of our communities and our economies."

“America’s Most Endangered Rivers is a snapshot of the threats facing rivers nationwide. We must defend these ten rivers and demand greater protections for all three million miles of rivers across our country," stated Tom Kiernan, President and CEO of American Rivers, in a press release from the organization. “Rivers and streams are our nation’s circulatory system, like the veins and arteries in our own bodies. Our health and our future are directly linked to our rivers.”

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Coal being transported on the Ohio River.
Source: Getty Images

Why is the Ohio River so contaminated?

The Ohio River has essentially been an industrial dumping ground for decades.

According to NPR, Pittsburgh's industrial plants, which were producing steel and petroleum in the 1960s, were constantly releasing putrid pollutants through massive plastic pipes leading into the Ohio River. And although many of the plants have since disappeared, and the water has improved over the last 50 years thanks to the Clean Water Act, it's still sort of a mess.

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Per American Rivers, the river is home to over 150 fish species, and supplies 5 million people with drinking water. But old pollutants like mercury still linger from that time, and even though the industrial plants are few and far between, there is still some industrial pollution in the area. And, not to mention, climate change is impacting waterways like the Ohio River with warming temperatures, floods that cause sewage overflow, droughts, and extreme weather.

"Protecting this precious resource [the Ohio River] is essential to ensuring the endurance of cultural identity, historical significance, biodiversity, vibrant river communities, and safe drinking water," American Rivers' report states.

Organizations like the Ohio River Basin Alliance are advocating for Congress to fund an ecosystem restoration project sometime this year. They hope to gain federal protection and to revive the ecosystem as a whole.

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The Ohio River flooded after heavy rain.
Source: Getty Images

What other U.S. rivers are considered endangered?

As previously mentioned, the Ohio River was named the second-most endangered U.S. river — but which others made the list?

No. 1 is the Colorado River, in Arizona's Grand Canyon. According to AZCentral, climate change is depleting the Colorado River — to the point that it's almost dried up. But because so many people rely on the river for water, as an ecosystem, and as an Indigenous sacred place, this is a major issue for residents of the southwestern state.

Others on the list included Mississippi's Pearl River, the PNW's Snake River, Montana's Clark Fork River, California's Eel River, Pennsylvania's Lehigh River, Alaska's Chilkat and Klehini rivers, New Mexico's Rio Gallinas, and Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.

We're fully aware we sound like a broken record, but our natural resources (like rivers) will continue to be diminished by climate change and harmful human activities, if major legislative changes aren't made soon.

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