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State leaders tour Ohio River restoration projects around Louisville

Wildfire smoke from Canada casts a haze over the Ohio River on July 9, 2023.
Ryan Van Velzer
Wildfire smoke from Canada casts a haze over the Ohio River on July 9, 2023.

State and Congressional officials toured environmental restoration projects along the Ohio River in Louisville on Wednesday. Environmental advocacy groups hope the projects can provide a model for improving water quality across the region.

There’s a whole lot less sewage overflowing into tributaries of the Ohio River thanks to the 4-mile-long, $220 million Waterway Protection Tunnel the Metropolitan Sewer District finished last year.

So far, it’s temporarily stored more than 500 millions of gallons underneath Louisville, said MSD Chief Engineer David Johnson.

“That would have normally have went to Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River, but now we’ve stored it and sent it for treatment. During one rain event last year we actually filled this thing up in about 10.5 hours,” Johnson said.

The tunnel was the first stop for state and congressional leaders on a tour of water restoration projects along the Ohio River as they draft a regional strategy to protect and restore the waters of the 14-state region.

The Ohio River watershed covers more than 200,000 square miles including a majority of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. The river serves as a drinking water source for millions of people, a corridor for commerce and recreation, and a dumping ground for industrial, agricultural and urban waste.

Environmental advocates including the Kentucky Waterways Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation joined officials from the Kentucky Division of Water, and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission on the tour. Democratic Congressman Morgan McGarvey of Louisville co-chairs the Ohio River Basin Congressional Caucus. He said there’s more to be done to restore the vital waterway.

“Whether it’s waste, whether it's erosion or pollution or climate change, the Ohio River needs our help,” McGarvey said.

The tour focused on local improvements made to improve the waters of Beargrass Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River, and at a farm in La Grange that has improved conservation practices to limit runoff. Nutrient pollution from agriculture and industry lower dissolved oxygen levels, causes toxic algal blooms and contributes to the annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jordan Lubetkin directs Ohio River Restoration for the National Wildlife Federation. He said the restoration projects highlight what’s possible for the region, given the appropriate resources and staff.

“It’s a microcosm of what we are really trying to do broadly across the 14-state region,” Lubetkin said. “All in service of protecting water quality.”

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.