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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.

By Mary WiltenburgStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 21, 2003


It's the tributary to America's heart.

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From its start in Pittsburgh, Pa., at the confluence with the Allegheny and Monongahela, to where it empties into the Mississippi in Cairo, Ill., the Ohio River makes up 10 percent of the nation's navigable waterways - and 40 percent of its river traffic. Endless coal barges feed the 49 power plants on its banks, supplying electricity to much of the Southeastern and Midwestern United States. Large-scale corn and soybean growers flank the river and irrigate with its water. Roughly 3 million Americans drink it.

Sixty years ago, the Ohio was so glutted with hops, coal ash, pig innards, steel waste, and chemical poisons that it actually stank. Today, the river faces subtler - though perhaps no less serious - threats: runoff from cattle farms and agricultural areas, overflows of raw sewage, and the invasion of an insidious new species.

This summer, a group of scientists from four local colleges set out to navigate the river's 981 miles, to test the scope of its problems and consider how - even whether - it can survive the challenges threatening many of the nation's waterways.

"This is no small thing," says microbiologist Miriam Kannan, readying one of the team's two boats for Day 5 of the 10-day expedition. "We are this river. It's a circle: from poop to drink and back again, the river runs through us."

Lewis and Clark rode this river, and thousands of "river rats" followed them west along its treacherous course, seeking their fortunes in flat-bottomed shanty-boats and patched-up skiffs. Before them, the Shawnee and Ojibwe fished its shallows and trapped along its banks. The Ohio spoke to all these, and on down the generations: to Mark Twain, to William Least Heat Moon, to so many others that by now it should be hoarse.

When we put in at tiny California, Ky., the river is running high with new rain. The Monark, the team's 18-foot research vessel (shaped like a bathtub toy, flying bright college pennants), chugs through water that looks like diner coffee with extra cream.

Apart from the global positioning satellite hookup, the sonar depth-finder, and a device called a datasonde that tests water chemistry, the scientific gear on board is surprisingly low-tech. Students Lisa Smith and Dave Harris scoop up river water in Mason jars and record their bearings in photocopied log books. Prof. Mike Miller catalogues water filters in squares of marker-scrawled aluminum foil. Formaldehyde, to preserve mussels and algae, travels in a neon-green sippy cup.

"We still have to spend a lot of time in the lab, especially in the winter," says Ms. Smith, a senior at West Virginia's Marshall University who plans to pursue her master's in environmental microbiology. "But to me this is the real science, the science of being out there in the world."

As the Monark makes its way downriver toward Cincinnati, the team's larger pontoon boat is covering the 50 miles of river north of California. Both boats stop every five miles to sample the water; scientists on board are gathering data for 20 different experiments on three main environmental problems. Their findings will help the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other monitoring bodies develop a better understanding - and new regulations for the care - of what French explorers once called la belle rivière.

No. 1: Musseling in

The Monark's first stop is a floating dock on the Kentucky bank that looks as though it has seen its share of floods. Lisa and Dave don life vests and hop into the muddy water to scour the dock's underside for an exotic species of mussel.

Natives of Norway, zebra mussels first came to the Great Lakes in 1989, probably in the bilge water of a boat. Since then, the voracious super-breeders have populated almost all the major inland waterways in the eastern half of the US. As they spread, they've been killing off already-threatened native mussels - the canaries in the underwater coal mine - says aquatic biologist John Hageman.

They've also been causing other changes. Because mussels eat by filtering water, the thousands of invading zebras that scientists found on last year's River Run had made the water much clearer.

Though that sounds like a good thing, it causes problems for the Ohio. For one thing, the aggressive filtering stirs up old poisons like PCBs and dioxin locked in the sedimentary layers of the river bottom. These toxic chemicals work their way up the food chain until they're dangerously concentrated in the carp and drum fish that have adapted to feed on the zebras.

Also, cleaner water means more light penetration and algae growth. That could be healthy in moderation, but the explosive growth is now having disastrous consequences downstream in the Gulf of Mexico, where the huge algal blooms end up and eventually die. Bacteria rush to decompose them, sucking all the oxygen out of the water, and creating a "dead zone" in which nothing else can live.