‘Unbuilding’: What might happen if dams are removed in the Ohio River watershed

The Ohio River watershed is dotted with thousands of small dams. Many are remnants of bygone days of grain mills and the steel industry, which used dams to pool water needed during production. The dams are no longer needed. And, because they can be a safety hazard to boats and a barrier to fish, there are efforts to remove them and restore free-flowing rivers. But not everyone is ready for it. A mayor’s vision starts with dam removal

After years of pushing for the removal of the old steel industry dam crossing the Mahoning River in his northeastern Ohio village near the Pennsylvania border, Lowellville Mayor Jim Iudiciani said it’s coming down this summer. 

“They call me the dam mayor, and for good reason, finally,” Iudiciani joked.

360-degree video interactive: A journey to revitalization on an Ohio River tributary

The Cheat River courses through one of the largest undammed watersheds in the eastern United States. The river forms from tributaries high in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia and flows northward to meet with the Monongahela River just before crossing into southwestern Pennsylvania. From there, the Mon joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River. The Ohio River is a drinking water source for five million people, and 25 million people in Appalachia and the Midwest live within its watershed. 

The Cheat River has a storied history. Not so long ago, the river ran orange for miles at a time from acid mine drainage, but revitalization efforts have brought the waters back to life, both literally and figuratively.

‘That’s vinegar’: The Ohio River’s history of contamination and progress made

By April Johnston

In 1958, researchers from the University of Louisville and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission gathered at a lock on the Monongahela River for routine collecting, counting and comparing of fish species. 

At the time, the best way to accomplish this was what’s called lock chamber sampling, or filling a 350-by-56-foot lock with river water, injecting it with cyanide and waiting for the dead fish to float to the top. Archaic, but effective. On this particular day, researchers opened the chamber to find one fish inside. One fish. It shouldn’t have been surprising, said Jerry Schulte, a biologist who managed the source water protection and emergency response team for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] for more than two decades.