Paddling and Boating on the Ohio River

Paddling on the Ohio River is more like paddling on a lake than a river.  If you can paddle on tributary waters, where there are rapids or areas of swift current, then you can certainly paddle on the Ohio River. Monitoring the water conditions of the Ohio River however, is essential to having a safe paddling or boating experience.  There are two components that all Ohio River boaters should be aware of when planning their trip: river level, called “stage”, and water velocity.  

Unlike tributary waters, the Ohio River stage and velocity can be influenced by rain events that occur upstream of the Recreational Trail, such as in eastern Ohio, West Virginia or Pennsylvania.  Significant rain events in these parts of the 204,000 square mile watershed can significantly affect the Ohio River’s stage and velocity observed the length of the Recreational Trail.  There are many websites that will provide river users with observed and predicted river conditions:

NOAA/National Weather Service Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service:  

These sites will be available in the Digital Guide so users can access them on a daily basis. But stage and velocity are not the only considerations one should give to an Ohio River paddling or boating experience.  

Water temperature and debris are two other components that cannot be overlooked when planning a paddling or boating adventure on the Ohio River.  Water temperature data is available from the USGS Markland Dam or Louisville websites listed above.  Unfortunately, there are no debris observation or reporting websites. Debris enters the Ohio River primarily from the tributaries and requires direct observation to assess.  Debris accumulates on the upstream sides of the dams on the Ohio River and should be avoided at all costs.  All river-borne debris should be given a wide birth and treated like icebergs: the danger lies in what is below the surface that you can’t see, not in what is above the surface that you can see!  

Ohio River Water Quality

At one time, the Ohio River was a wholesale dumping ground for municipalities and industries.  But that has changed drastically over the past 70 years, starting with the inception of ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission in 1948.  ORSANCO’s ground-breaking work in the development of wastewater treatment processes and water quality criteria was further supported and reinforced by the subsequent development and cooperation of numerous state and federal environmental quality agencies throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.  The combined efforts of these agencies has resulted in astounding improvements in Ohio River water quality as observed by the resurgence of fish and wildlife populations in and along the Ohio River. The Ohio now supports more than 150 species of fish, while beaver, river otters, and bald eagles can be found commonly along its length!  

Today, most Ohio River water quality problems are associated with rain events and watershed-based run-off. Bacteria levels will increase in virtually all lakes, rivers and streams following rain events as land-based material, i.e., feces, sewage, etc., washes off the land and into nearby waterways that all lead to the Ohio.  But, due to the incredible volume of water in the Ohio, the dilution potential of the Ohio River is so vast that the concentrations of bacteria are usually much lower than that found in the tributaries.    

Ohio River Water Quantity

So how much water is in the Ohio River?  Where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio commonly triples the flow of the Mississippi!  That’s right, at that point the Ohio River carries significantly more water than the Mississippi.  And, at Cincinnati, under high flow conditions, the amount of water passing by Cincinnati is equal to or greater than the amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls!  That’s one thing about the Ohio River, it has never run out of water!  There is plenty for all (and not all rivers throughout the country can say that!). 

Public Perception

The Ohio River is undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood, much maligned and underutilized water resources in the region.  Why? “The Ohio River has a public perception problem,” according to Jerry Schulte, retired environmental scientist with 35 years water quality research on the Ohio River.  “The Ohio River frequently looks dirty due to all the mud, dirt, and debris that gets into the river after rain events.  Left to its own devices, however, it has a remarkable ability to clean itself up and become incredibly beautiful and safe!”. “I’ve been scuba diving in the Ohio River for 15 years, and it is truly a remarkable resource,” said Bob Ruehlman, Cincinnati Judge and local scuba diving enthusiast. “The fish and native mussels that we see during a dive right here in downtown Cincinnati are truly amazing”.  The Ohio River boasts over 150 species of fish, with more than 90 species found in the Markland pool (where Cincinnati is located).  However, we are fortunate that the Ohio River is monitored extensively by ORSANCO for pollutants and bacteria as well as algae, fish and macroinvertebrates (small bugs that live in the river and are an essential part of the food chain) all of which are indicators of the health of the Ohio River.    The more people that begin to understand the river, it’s hydrologic and water quality dynamics, the more people will be comfortable in recreating and enjoying this truly remarkable resource!  

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