The Ohio River is the most polluted river in the United States. In this series of essays entitled ‘The Ohio River Speaks,‘ Will Falk travels the length of the river and tells her story. Read the first, second, third, and fourth part of Will’s journey.
Sometimes I ask the Ohio River questions. And, sometimes she asks me. West of Salamanca, New York, a few miles before the Kinzua Dam traps the Ohio River in the Allegheny Reservoir, I sat in a kayak listening. She was speaking, but I did not understand.
The water was slow. The river’s face was smooth. And, the surface reflected a blue and white mosaic created by lazy cumulus clouds drifting across the sky. She pulled me ever so gently downstream. The sensation was powerfully familiar, but I did not know why.
A mother merganser swam with her five chicks along the closest shore. I smiled at what looked like exasperation on her face as she tried to keep her children moving in the same direction. For a few moments, she anxiously eyed a space downstream where a bald eagle had disappeared into the trees. When she looked back, one duckling had gone one way and one another. The other three didn’t know who to follow.
My mind slowed to match the river’s pace. The random, anxious firing of disparate images that form my moment-to-moment consciousness throttled down until my thoughts almost disappeared entirely. They were replaced by the fullness of my experience of the river. The sun, glinting off a passing dragonfly, left a trail of turquoise light. Bugs skimmed the surface, and appeared to me like the tips of invisible pens writing disappearing messages that only the bugs could comprehend. On the edge of my vision, I saw a splash and the telltale ripples of a leaping trout.
The enchantment continued until a wedge of passing Canada geese pointed right at me. They swept low and the goose flying point shat. The shit slapped my plastic kayak – a direct hit. The honking geese laughed. And, I did, too.
I knew the metaphors she presented me with were meaningful. What could be more meaningful than being shit on? But, I wasn’t sure what the Ohio River was trying to communicate until a few days later.
I was listening to an interview given by agricultural critic Richard Manning, author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization and other great books. Manning was asked about the global food shortage and whether there would be enough food to feed the world’s human population over the balance of the 21st century. Manning answered no and pointed out how we are already failing to do so “drastically.” He explained that the people who say we are not failing often assume that humans need a certain amount of calories per day (2000 is the most common number). They multiply this number by the world’s total human population. Next, they calculate the total caloric value of the planet’s corn, wheat, and other grain production. Because the total caloric value of agricultural grain production is greater than the calories they claim are needed by humans, many people declare there is no food shortage.
Manning argued, however, that 2000 calories of carbohydrates are not adequate daily nutrition. He pointed out that high carbohydrate diets are, in fact, making humans sick, and that most humans are not getting the nutrition we have evolved to need. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most important things missing from most human diets. Omega-3 fats are vital for brain health and, thus, for achieving human potential.
A major problem, however, is that the world is running out of this essential nutrient. Omega-3 fats primarily come from animals, especially cold-water fish. Manning mentioned a study conducted by British scientists. I found the study titled “Is the world supply of omega-3 fatty acids adequate for optimal human nutrition?” by Norman Salem, Jr. and Manfred Eggersdorfer.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the most important Omega-3 fatty acids for human health. The study’s abstract stated that “EPA and DHA originate in the phytoplankton and are made available in the human food chain mainly through fish and other seafood.” However, “the fish catch is not elastic and in fact has long since reached a plateau.” These acids do occur in vegetables, but “vegetable oil-derived alpha-linolenic acid, though relatively plentiful, is converted only at a trace level in humans to DHA and not very efficiently to EPA, and so cannot fill” the gap in human need for EPA and DHA. The study “concluded that fish and vegetable oil sources will not be adequate to meet future needs, but that algal oil and terrestrial plants modified genetically to produce EPA and DHA could provide for the increased world demand.”
The realities of human nutritional needs, fish population collapses, and human population growth confronts us with a series of choices. We can attempt to provide all humans alive today with adequate nutrition. And, in the attempt, exhaust cold water fish, turn the oceans into algae farms, and violate the very DNA of terrestrial plants, while creating mutant plants to serve us. We can work to reduce human population to a point where humans and cold water fish can both thrive and exist. Or, we can do nothing. And, the most privileged among us may enjoy adequate nutrition – for a time – while more and more humans fall victim to malnutrition, while fewer and fewer of us may realize our full human potential.
I remembered the trout I saw leaping near the Allegheny Reservoir. I remembered the ripples whispering with the trout’s passing. I thought of other fish who provide Omega-3 fats: the mesmerizing schools of mackerel twirling like underwater whirlpools, the once mighty runs of red salmon who made so much noise swimming upriver you could hear them a mile away, and the hardy cod who call the deep, cold seas of the North Atlantic home.
While I was trying to understand the Ohio River’s message contained in these experiences, I went looking for information on her fish, specifically. I landed on the Ohio River Fish Consumption Advisory Workgroup’s website. This Workgroup is a “multi-agency workgroup consisting of representatives from the six main stem states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia) as well as the US EPA and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.”
The website featured rows of photos of fishermen holding up individual fish of different species. Under each photo, text described how often each species can be eaten and the chemical reason for the advisory. Under a photo of a walleye, for example, the text read “1 meal per month – PCBs.” Under a photo of a sauger, the text read “1 meal per month – Hg.” Under a photo of a white bass, the text read “6 meals per year – PCBs.” But worst of all, under the photos of both a common carp and a channel catfish, the text read “Do not eat – PCBs.” PCBs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency “belong to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons.” Hg is mercury.
This made me nauseous. But, probably not as nauseous as eating a common carp or channel catfish would. I wondered how it made the fish feel. I wondered how the chemicals made other animals who eat the fish feel. Mergansers eat fish. Bald eagles do, too. Canada geese are primarily herbivores, but they occasionally eat fish. Hopefully, they observe the advisories and eat less than one meal per month or 6 meals per year.
As I thought of all these creatures, I sensed I was getting closer to understanding the Ohio River’s meaning. That’s when the familiarity I felt while floating in my kayak came back to me. The first physical sensations I ever experienced must have been those I felt floating in my mother’s womb. But, I’m not just my mother’s son. I spent the first, most formative years of my life drinking the Ohio River’s water. I am the Ohio River’s son, too.
But, that wasn’t all of it. The Ohio River pushed me on. My memory drifted farther into the past. Floating was likely our oldest ancestors’ first activity. Floating is familiar because the first motions of Life on Earth began in the movement of water. I saw the primordial oceans receding, glaciers melting, and the Ohio River being born. The Ohio River is a mother. She is also a daughter of the Earth.
Her voice became clear then. I understood what she was saying. On the kayak trip, she showed me her children – mergansers, a bald eagle, a dragonfly, and shitting geese. A few days later, she drew my attention to global problems confronting humans, fish, and her kin, the oceans. To understand these problems, I delved into studies describing the extent of global destruction and found the fish advisories. Then, as I considered the pain industrial poisons cause the Ohio River’s children, she evoked the familiar sensation of floating in a mother’s womb.
The key was the word “familiar.” The Ohio River was asking me for news of her family. She gossips with her sister, the Mississippi, when she joins her near Cairo, IL. But, the Mississippi only offers correspondence from around North America. She listens to her cousins in the global water cycle, the clouds. Clouds and rivers speak similar, but not the same, languages. Sometimes the wind brings tidings from the oceans. But, the wind talks too fast and never stays long. With access to global information at my fingertips, she wanted my help.
Her questions may have been clear all along. Perhaps, my heart prevented me from hearing.
The news, of course, is heartbreaking. The 2018 Living Planet Index and Zoological Society of London’s Living Planet Report found that on average the abundance of vertebrate species’ populations monitored across the globe declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014. The study’s authors explained that humans are causing this decline through overexploitation of species, agriculture, and land conversion. This means that, in just 44 years, humans have destroyed more than half the world’s vertebrates. Things are worse for global freshwater species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish which have declined by 83 percent between 1970 and 2014, equivalent to 4% per year since 1970.
This is the arithmetic of atrocity. Every year, due to human destructiveness, the Ohio River’s family grows smaller and smaller.
The 2016 version of the Living Planet Report found that almost half (48 percent) of global river volume had been altered by flow regulation, fragmentation, or both. The authors noted that completion of all dams planned or under construction would mean that natural hydrologic flows would be lost for 93 percent of all river volume.
Most of the Ohio River’s sisters, like she is, are held captive by dams.
Just like the numbers are grim for the animals who live in water, the news is gut-wrenching for the global water cycle. Water is being poisoned on a massive scale. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization states that every day 2 million tons of sewage and other effluents drain into the world’s water. Industry discharges an estimated 300-400 megatons of waste into water bodies every year. And, globally, it is likely that over 80% of wastewater is released back into the water cycle without adequate treatment.
The water forming the Ohio River’s body and the bodies of her relatives is being poisoned.
I read these statistics out loud to the Ohio River. I’m not sure how I thought she’d respond. I waited for several days. Nothing came through my dreams. Inspiration was absent. Writing about other aspects of the river failed. For the first time, the Ohio River had nothing to say to me.
Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem. He is a practicing rights of Nature attorney and a member of DGR.