Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"A River Runs Through Us," Part 1

Tonight I went to Schooner’s, a restaurant in Huntington, to hear the first lecture in a series about the Ohio River presented by faculty of the Marshall University College of Science.

Chuck Somerville, dean of the College of Science, gave an overview of the importance of the Ohio River to the region and threats that it faces. The title of his talk was “The River Runs Through Us.”

Somerville said many people the Ohio River primarily as an industrial ditch, but he doesn’t.

“If you allow yourself to experience the river from top to bottom, it truly is a beautiful river, and it’s worthy of our protection,” he said.

Somerville said the Ohio River provides the daily water supply for about 3 million people, or about 1 percent of the nation’s population. Add in the people who draw water from its tributaries and groundwater that feeds into the Ohio, and the number increases, he said.

The river is also a transportation route for about $4.5 billion worth of cargo each year. It’s a waste removal system and a recreation resource, he said.

And the Ohio is a wildlife habitat. He said the river is home to 193 species of birds, 500 species of plants, 130 species of fish, 42 species of mollusks, 23 species of mammals, 15 species of herps (reptiles and amphibians) and, of course, people.

“I want all of you to think about taking care of this resource and loving the river as much as I do,” he said.

Somerville listed several threats to the river.

Ø    --  Agricultural runoff, which feeds algal blooms, affects oxygen demand and adds toxins.
Ø     -- Mining activity, which affects acidity, sediments and metals.
Ø     -- Natural gas drilling, partly because of increased interest in developing Marcellus shale deposits. Gas drilling leads to problems with sediments, solids, chemicals and water consumption, Somerville said. In West Virginia alone, 1,338 permits have been issued for drilling in Marcellus shale, he said. About 4 million to 8 million gallons of fresh water will be needed for gas drilling in the state, and about 75 percent of that will remain underground, he said. The water that is recovered will be contaminated. It will be 10 times saltier than sea water, and it will be treated as hazardous waste, he said. The amount of water that will be used is about the same as the amount that flows past Ashland, Ky., in 2.5 hours, he said.

Somerville said he is not advocating that drilling in the Marcellus shale shouldn’t be explored, but people need to pay attention to it.

Another threat he described was the combined storm and sanitary sewer systems of many cities along the Ohio.

So what can people do? Four things, Somerville said. They can appreciate the value of aquatic resources. They can support balanced conservation and sustainable development. They can talk to friends and representatives. And they can vote with their ballots and their money.

About 60 people attended Somerville’s lecture. The next talk in the series is on Dec. 14, also at Schooner’s. Jeff Kovatch, a biology professor at Marshall, will speak on “The Scale of Life in the Ohio River.”

For more background on the series, check out this article that ran in The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington on Sunday.

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On a personal note, I have been asked to share some of my river photos and give a talk on them during a future session. More to come as arrangements are made.

Also, I’ve known Somerville for about six years. We met in 2004 when he was part of a team of researchers from four schools – Marshall University, the University of Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky University and Thomas More College – traveling the entire distance of the Ohio River on a sidewheeler known as the Chattanooga Star. Somerville and his students were looking for bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics. Others on the trip did their own research. One person in particular looked for zebra mussels.

At the time, Somerville was a professor of microbiology at Marshall. Since then he has become dean of the College of Science.

Before the lecture began, a person approached me and told me he knew who I was. He said he reads this blog, and he recognized some photos as having been shot from his back yard. As it turns out, he lives on the land where my mother lived for 23 years before she died in 1993.

Three news items

The TV people here in Huntington, W.Va., keep predicting a deluge for today, but I've not seen it yet. Meanwhile, folks up the river in Pittsburgh have issued a flood advisory along the Ohio River there.


It looks like the proposed buyout of American Commercial Lines is proceeding. The company operates towboats and builds barges.


I wish I could be in Madison, Ind., today for the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Ohio River bridge there. This is the one where the piers of the existing bridge will be widened while the new bridge structure is built nearby. Eventually, the old bridge will be removed and the new one placed on the piers.