In May of this year, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), charged with protecting water quality in the Ohio, issued a proposal to allow more fecal coliform--that is, raw sewage--to be released into the river, which supplies more than 3 million people with drinking water.
Eight Sierra Club chapters, the Club's Water Sentinels program, and a coalition of community groups fought back with an unprecedented barrage of public comments, a challenge of the science behind the proposal, even a swim across the Ohio at Cincinnati, where hundreds of people joined acclaimed long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox to protest the commission's plan.
In October, ORSANCO bowed to public pressure and shelved its proposal.
"We organized fishermen, swimmers, and boaters against the plan," says Northern Kentucky Water Sentinel Tim Guilfoile, "but we also talked to businesses and companies who are investing millions along the Ohio-in condos, restaurants, aquariums, movie theaters, you name it. "If more raw sewage is allowed in the water, what's going to happen to their property values? It doesn't just threaten recreation; it threatens business investments and tourism revenues all up and down the Ohio."
Ohio Chapter Conservation Chair Marilyn Wall and Ohio organizers Christine Robertson and Becky McClatchey helped spearhead the Club effort, aided by a coalition of partner groups including Rivers Unlimited.
Guilfoile says that ORSANCO typically gets a dozen or so comments when they're thinking about changing a regulation, so the scale of the public opposition "completely overwhelmed them." The Club-led coalition generated more than 8,000 public comments, nearly 6,000 written comments and 1,800 e-mail comments, and some 8,000 postcards opposing the proposal.
The Club also demonstrated that ORSANCO's proposal was based on invalid scientific data and shaky criteria. "They claimed no one used the river when the current exceeded two miles per hour, so it didn't matter if standards for human contact were lowered," says Wall. "That was not the case."
Guilfoile, who grew up swimming in the river ("I shudder to think this was before the Clean Water Act"), says water quality has improved dramatically over the last 20 years and that river communities are now focusing on the Ohio as an asset to community development as well as tourism. "Given the progress we've made, ORSANCO's plan was a giant step backwards."
More than 90 groups got involved in the campaign, says Water Sentinels Director Scott Dye. "It was Tim's idea to figure out who used the river and put a huge, broad, diverse coalition together."
Ohio Swim: Acclaimed long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox, left, and four Cincinnati-area residents, ride back after swimming across the Ohio River to protest a plan to allow more raw sewage in the water. [photo by Tim Guilfoile]