86% of Ohio’s large rivers met water quality standards, new study shows

1,176 miles of Ohio’s large rivers were determined to be in excellent condition and another 190 miles of Ohio’s rivers are partially meeting water quality standards.

By: - August 1, 2023 4:50 pm
Man fishing on Cuyahoga River with Cleveland in background

Tommy Greer, 34, fishes in the Cuyahoga River with a background of downtown Cleveland in this file photo. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Most of Ohio’s rivers met water quality standards, except for a stretch of the Mohican River, according to a new study from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency

Eighty-six percent or 1,176 miles of Ohio’s large rivers were determined to be in excellent condition and another 190 miles of Ohio’s large rivers are partially meeting water quality standards, the study showed.

Five miles of the Mohican River are considered not healthy due to over-enrichment and sediment, according to the study. The 40 mile Mohican River forms in Ashland County and is part of the Mississippi River watershed. 

“These are fixable problems at this point,” Bob Miltner, an environmental scientist at the Ohio EPA said Tuesday afternoon during a press conference. 

Over-enrichment in rivers means there are excessive levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, according to the study.

The study, which was conducted in 2020 and 2021, also showed Ohio’s rives are getting warmer. In the 1980s, the average temperature was 20.5 degrees Celsius and the average temperature from the new study was 23.2 degrees Celsius. 

“We want our rivers to be healthy because a healthy river can absorb impacts,” Miltner said. “We are a very populous state. Things are going to happen. If you have a healthy river, they can absorb some of those impacts.” 

He said the hope is to do the study again in 10 years. 

Historical perspective 

Ohio’s rivers were previously tested during the 1980s and back then only 18% (253 miles) of Ohio’s largest rivers met clean water standards. 

“Two decades ago many of our rivers were much different than they were today,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said. “Candidly, they were unhealthy. They were contaminated. Sewage, oil, and chemicals were dumped into the water. Fish were dying.”

Part of the Scioto River was once categorized as one of the worst in the state, DeWine said. 

Aerial view of Downtown Columbus Ohio with Scioto river. Getty Images.

“Now we are seeing people kayaking, walking and fishing and enjoying time along this river,” he said as he stood on the Scioto Mile which overlooks the Scioto River in Downtown Columbus. 

State Sen. Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, said he enjoys sitting on a swing that overlooks the Scioto River with his wife on Sunday nights.

“Any given time on the weekends and other days, you’ll see people jogging, you’ll see people kayaking,” he said. (The Scioto River) is so vital, it is so critical.” 

Ohio’s communities have rallied together to clean up the rivers and prevent chemicals and sewage from entering the water, DeWine said. 

He also attributed Ohio’s cleaner rivers to improved water treatment and wastewater infrastructure. 

Miltner said he remembers the Ohio rivers being so unhealthy they either had no fish in them or had fish without fins. 

“That kind of problem we never see anymore,” he said. “We don’t find fish that have deformities.” 

East Palestine

The Ohio EPA’s study was conducted before the Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine back in February. The train was traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania and it contained vinyl chloride. 

Some chemicals from the train derailment were found in Leslie Run and Sulphur Run near East Palestine and 3,500 fish died.

“We knew the spill affected those waterways directly,” said Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel. “It reached the Ohio River in small amounts. That clean-up continues.”

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Megan Henry
Megan Henry

Megan Henry is a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal and has spent the past five years reporting in Ohio on various topics including education, healthcare, business and crime. She previously worked at The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA Today Network.