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The Lost and Found River

Biohabitats Ohio River Bioregion Leader Mike Lighthiser wants to keep the Ohio River Bioregion on everyone’s radar screen.

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Over the last six and a half years, I have had the opportunity to travel around the Ohio River Bioregion, develop partnerships, and participate in projects that share Biohabitats’ mission to “Restore the Earth and Inspire Ecological Stewardship.” Through these efforts, I have met a lot of different people in public agencies, non-profit groups, and private firms doing admirable work. For example, I’ve gotten to know organizations that are working toward mitigating stream impacts through in-lieu fee programs, such as the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Stream and Wetland Restoration Program, the Center for Applied Ecology, and the Tennessee Stream Mitigation Program.  I have seen implementation of “green” infrastructure and building projects such as Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District’s pervious concrete installation and rain garden and rain barrel initiatives, 3 Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Program’s green roof project, Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky’s Public Service Park, and Bernheim Arboretum’s Visitor Center  which recently received a LEED Platinum rating – the only such building in this region.

I have also taken part in planning projects, such as the Floyds Fork Watershed Plan led by the Kentucky Waterways Alliance  and the Floyds Fork and Jefferson Memorial Forest Master Plans, part of Louisville’s “City of Parks” initiative. I’ve learned about the The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect freshwater mollusk and fish species in the Big Darby Creek watershed in Ohio, Green River and Buck Creek in Kentucky, and Cumberland Plateau streams in Tennessee, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ attempt to implement a Ohio River Ecosystem Restoration Program.  All of these programs and projects involve many dedicated individuals working toward a better future for the communities within the Ohio River watershed.

Through Biohabitats’ work in the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, and along San Francisco Bay, I have been able to observe projects outside of this Bioregion. There are lessons that we can learn from these other areas and apply to the unique conditions found here. For example, many cities in the Ohio River Bioregion and beyond are under consent decrees with the U.S. EPA to clean up wet-weather discharges of sewage into streams. The initial reaction of sewer districts may be to focus on large gray infrastructure capital projects such as building tunnels or bigger, separate sewers with a smattering of stormwater best management practices. However, innovative green infrastructure approaches like the ones I mention in the first paragraph, above, make use of natural processes and energy flows and provide numerous additional benefits (such as wildlife habitat and open space). They are a viable option that should be considered on a larger scale and have been successfully implemented on large scales in other parts of country. Seattle’s SEA streets  are a good example.

Many cities also struggle with land use planning and the ongoing conversion of agricultural and natural lands to suburban and urban development. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, an initiative known as Builders for the Bay encourages local governments to adopt better site design principles that reduce the environmental effects of residential and commercial development. The effort is pursued under the leadership of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Center for Watershed Protection and the National Association of Home Builders, and involves holding facilitated roundtable dialogues with a diverse group of community stakeholders that ultimately result in the adoption of a Consensus Document agreeing to environmentally sensitive development principles. See the following website: http://www.cwp.org/bfb_better_site_design.htm. While development is going to continue, by learning and implementing better development practices we have a chance to make long-lasting improvements to our environment.

When I drive south on I-65 in Kentucky, I pass through cave country and the exit signs for the Lost River. How did we ever lose a river? Well, in this case, the karst landscape and resulting caves are responsible for this “lost” river. However, I wonder if the Ohio River and its tributaries have also been lost, at least to the public eye.

Outside of the Bioregion, I have noticed that there are numerous organizations, programs, and funding that focus on other natural systems such as the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, and San Francisco Bay. In fact, despite all of the efforts that I’ve seen in this Bioregion, I come away with the feeling that the Ohio River and its watershed fall under the radar. How much longer until we really do lose the Ohio River and its tributaries, especially considering the challenges that we face with regard to water quality, biodiversity, and watershed protection? Historically, the Ohio River has been a downstream sink for our runoff and our sewage. However, as noted elsewhere in this newsletter, approximately three million people get their drinking water from the Ohio River (including me); we really should recognize it as our source and treat it like a spring. Considering the diversity of plant and animal species; the area’s critical role in the development of the eastern deciduous forest; the valuable soils and abundant precipitation, and the numerous headwaters, creeks, and streams, this bioregion is our Eden, and we run the risk of losing it.

Can society shift its view and reconsider this Bioregion as the critical resource that it is? Can we take all the wonderful work that is occurring – the restored streams, the watershed plans, the protected forests, the stormwater BMPs – and make it into a truly regenerative force? How do we help society find the river?

Got an idea?

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