Historical Water Quality Issues

Growing concern for the deteriorating environmental conditions in the Ohio River peaked in the early 1930s, when serious drought turned many slackwater pools into virtual cesspools and a series of epidemics plagued cities along the Ohio River. Costs of water treatment increased dramatically from 1921 to 1934 as a result of an estimated 80-fold increase in the bacteria levels present in the river. In 1936, Congressman Brent Spence testified at a congressional hearing on the pollution of navigable waters that "the Ohio River is a cesspool." At the same hearing, the State Health Commissioner of Kentucky added that "the Ohio River, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, is an open sewer." In 1939, the city of Marietta, Ohio, was forced to change its water supply source from the Ohio River to wells and the Muskingum River as pollution levels in the river became untreatable. In 1951, only 39 percent of the sewered population was served by community treatment facilities. Sections of the Ohio River still suffered oxygen depletion so severe that aquatic life could not survive and pollution, bacteria levels, taste, and odor made large sections of the Ohio River unsuitable for most uses.

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