Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

The river runs through US

The Ohio River's thousand-mile run offers scientists fresh insights into the health of America's waterways, pollution threats, and troubled aquatic life.

(Page 2 of 2)

Dave and Lisa find about 30 zebras clinging to the dock: not as many as last year, but more than the team found in the flood two years ago. After taking water and algae samples, the boat gets under way.

Skip to next paragraph
No. 2: It's not easy being green

At the back of the craft, aquatic ecologist Mike Miller is hand-pumping water through a series of filters, one to strain out larger algae, or phytoplankton, another to catch bacteria and river-bottom clay. These he'll send to the USGS and the EPA, which will use the data to decide how to regulate chemical dumping. But Dr. Miller, of the University of Cincinnati, is most concerned about nutrients: nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich fertilizers that wash off farmland and feed river algae instead.

"It's like someone turned on a huge spigot of corn syrup," he explains, squinting distractedly at a low-flying plane. "This river is the biggest contributor of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Gulf," and as the algae grow fat on these nutrients, so does the dead zone, an area thought to measure between 20,000 and 50,000 square miles at its summer peak.

Suddenly, Miller leaps to his feet. "You know who that is?" he shouts to the others, waving his River Run cap over his head, "I just realized: It's the US EPA! They're here because of us."

In fact, they're here because of a chance call Miller made a week ago to a former student who now works for the EPA. When he told her about the project, she got excited - and got the bureaucratic wheels turning with unheard-of speed.

Now the EPA is following the scientists, using a super-sensing device called a hydrospectral scanner to gather data - about the clarity of the water and the presence of oil spills and exotic toxins in the river - to coordinate with theirs. Miller says the government hopes to refine the flying scanner so that it can be used to detect concentrations of toxins that might indicate terrorist activity.

"This is really coordinated science here," he says. "We've got the USGS on board, the US EPA. I've never seen anything like this."

Then again, he says, "we're doing something nobody ever does: a snapshot of a whole river in essentially a day."

No. 3: The poop deck

The Monark travels from a quiet stretch of river into an industrial area and on into downtown Cincinnati, whose shoreline is a cascade of cement steps. Leaving the city, the boat passes a major sewage treatment plant. It's one of the main concerns of the trip for Smith and her microbiology professor, Charles Somerville. The two are studying the presence of E. coli-related bacteria and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the water due to fecal matter - both human (20 antiquated sewer systems around Cincinnati overflow into the river when it rains) and animal (cow, pig, and other droppings wash off nearby farms).

These animals, Smith explains, are increasingly plumped on antibiotic-enhanced feed, which makes them grow faster, but also makes them resistant to antibiotic treatment if they do get sick. And resistant bacteria are good proselytizers, says Dr. Kannan, of Northern Kentucky University. Three in a large intestine can quickly convert the rest, resulting in medically untreatable infections. Fast-food giant McDonalds made headlines last month by announcing it will phase out its use of antibiotic-fed beef, pork, and chicken by the end of 2004. Sweden recently banned antibiotic use for all but sick animals.

If a large intestine is fertile ground, a river contains an infinite number of potential bacterial converts. That's what worries Dr. Somerville. "Now some strains of antibiotics are almost useless," he says. Running out of antibiotics before new types can be discovered or manufactured has become a serious concern. Somerville's study is testing for resistant strains of commonly prescribed medicines: cipro, or ciprofloxacin, the best known anthrax treatment; tetracycline, often used to treat pneumonia, acne, and bladder infections; and erythromycin, employed for respiratory infections and syphilis.

"We were going to do vancomycin" - a "last resort" drug doctors prescribe for infections that resist every other treatment, Smith says. "But a bunch of the guys in our lab are like, 'We don't want to know if there's anything that's resistant to vancomycin.' " Bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics could potentially be used as biological weapons.

At the end of a long day, the Monark crew is met at Aurora, Ind., by one of the trip's organizers, Dr. Hageman of Kentucky's Thomas More College. They load the craft onto its trailer, then make for the lab, where they'll prepare test specimens in petri dishes before they break for dinner. Tomorrow they'll be off again, for another 100 miles of la belle rivière.

"No one else is doing this," says Somerville, "and it's so important." The Ohio River basin cuts through America's heartland, he says, so studying the river "is like taking your pulse: You get to know what's happening in your whole body by looking at that one spot."