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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ohio River Foundation Works to Restore, Protect, and Educate

The Ohio River is a major part of many of our daily lives. Maybe you cross the river to get to work each day, perhaps your house boasts a view of the river, you might meet up with friends at Newport on the Levee or The Banks, or you could enjoy boating along the river during a sunny day. While many of us may look to the Ohio River for recreational purposes, the Ohio River Foundation is working to ensure that the river itself is taken care of properly.
The Ohio River Foundation (ORF), a non-profit organization, was formed in 2000 to protect and restore the river's water quality, and to also offer education programs. I recently spoke with Fort Thomas native and Highlands High School alum Sara Luse about her involvement with ORF. Luse serves as a River Explorer Educator and is also responsible for the group's Social Engagement. “My biology advisor and professor from NKU, Dr. Miriam Kannan, told me about the Ohio River Foundation. She was one of the board members for the organization. The River Explorer educator position was very appealing to me since my area of concentration in college was in aquatic biology and I always had the desire to teach,” said Luse. 

According to ORF's website, the organization focuses on these main goals:
  • Promotes equal consideration of environmental protection and economic factors in watershed management
  • Fosters river stewardship through education and collaboration
  • Works with scientists and governmental agencies to protect and improve water quality
  • Provides access to resources to support citizen involvement in Ohio River development activities and governmental initiatives
  • Promotes increased opportunities for river restoration
  • Encourages environmentally friendly alternatives to polluting businesses and business practices
ORF relies on six board members, approximately 14 staff members, and a large collection of members and volunteers to help work to accomplish the organization's main objectives. 

Sara Luse (left) with members of the Ohio River Foundation
The Ohio River is more than just a dividing line between Kentucky and Ohio, but also serves many purposes for the area as a whole. “Not only is the river our source of drinking water, it is a place for recreation, wildlife habitat, and commerce,” said Luse. “The ORF’s main goal is to protect and restore the water quality and ecology of the Ohio River and its tributaries for the health and enjoyment of present and future generations. The health of the river and its tributaries directly affects the quality of life for everyone living in that watershed.” With approximately 25 million people live in the Ohio River Basin, in which 5 million of those people rely on the Ohio River for their main source of drinking water, it's easy to see why the members of the ORF take their jobs seriously.
The River Explorer program was created to help educate local school children about the river, and how it impacts the area as a whole. The program has grown in popularity since it was first offered. “More than 20,000 students from over 40 different schools have participated in the River Explorer program since it began in 2005,” said Luse. Also, ORF is growing! We just had our first River Explorer up in Columbus, which is very exciting for us!”
The River Explorer program is an all-day event, which allows students to get hands-on experience in the water. A typical day for students participating in the River Explorer program begins with the ORF leader discussing the plans for the day and briefing the students on safety information. The students are then broken up into small groups in order to rotate through different learning stations. The learning stations include River Chemistry, Fishing and Seining, Freshwater Macrovertebrates, and Water Cycle and Conservation.
Local students participate in the River Explorer program.
In addition to ORF's educational programming, the organization boasts important restoration and advocacy programs. The Dam/Barrier Removal & Habitat Restoration program works to clear out any obstructions in the area that could cause issues with the water flow, which could lead to problems within the ecosystem. Dams have greatly changed the flow of the river, creating a series of very slow moving pools rather than a free flowing river. They have also altered the habitat for many river organisms, preventing fish and other organisms from moving up and down the river in the natural cycles,” said Luse. Additionally, the Youth Conservation Team (YCT) was developed to provide an opportunity for high school students to gain experience with restoration and conservation work. This is a stewardship program that employs high school students to do on-the-ground conservation work during the summer. The overall goal of these projects are to reduce erosion and run-off in the targeted sub-watershed,” said Luse.
ORF members work to remove parts of West Milton Dam
According to ORF's website, “The Ohio River is now the worst toxic water dump in the U.S.” Remember that fact stated earlier about how 5 million people in the Greater Cincinnati area get their drinking water from the Ohio River? Well, there's a good chance that the glass of water you just drank came from the Ohio River. The same Ohio River that has been labeled as a toxic water dump. Luckily for us, ORF is actively working to make changes that will have a positive impact on your daily life. The group's Protect the Water campaign is focused on improving our water quality. ORF's website states that “under the auspices of the Protect Our Water campaign ORF is now conducting an independent investigation to identify polluters threatening our waterways and drinking water supplies, and force compliance with the law.”
Not only has ORF provided educational outlets for our area's youth, but it has also become the leading force in the Ohio River's conservation and restoration. The group has no plans of slowing down in the near future, and are celebrating their 15th anniversary. They are currently expanding the River Explorer programs to include the Columbus, Ohio area, and preparing for the 2015 Youth Conservation Team to kick off this summer. In addition to their education programs, ORF is continually working on their restoration and conservation projects. They will soon be finishing their work on Stillwater River, and continuing to work on Beaver Creek in Kentucky. According to Luse, ORF will also be “applying for grants to help restore our rivers back to their original free-flowing form.”
If you are interested in becoming involved in ORF, there are a couple of options for you. You can sign up on their website to become a member and receive their newsletter, you can like them on Facebook in order to catch up on upcoming events and up-to-the-minute news regarding restoration projects, and you can follow the group on Instagram. ORF has lots of opportunities for volunteers, so be sure to check out their list of upcoming events and fundraisers if you're interested in being involved with the organization. 

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