With Advocacy

Ohio River Foundation is a strong voice for protecting and restoring the Ohio River and all waters in its wwatershed. We work at local, state, and federal levels for effective laws and regulations that will reduce pollution, restore vital natural systems like forests and wetlands, and encourage smart growth in our communities.

ORF acts to identify best practices for restoring and protecting our waterways, while being vigilant in opposing projects or proposals that would degrade water quality. We submit comments to governing bodies regarding wetlands mitigation, stormwater issues, construction and development projects and more. ORF is well-respected as a resource on environmental issues that impact the Ohio River and its watershed.

Protect Our Water Campaign


The Ohio River is routinely cited as the most toxic water river in the U.S. Through our Protect Our Water program we are trying to change the situation for the better.

Improvements in water quality were achieved in the Ohio River watershed due primarily to passage and enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972.  However, threats continue from stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, mercury deposition from coal-fired plants, and millions of gallons of untreated sewage that flow into the river each year from sewer overflows.  Furthermore, Over the last two years, evidence indicates that government pollution prevention and enforcement programs are not working well. Reports by USEPA, Environment America Research & Policy Center, and The New York Times indicate that:

  1. In 2013, polluters dumped 23 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Ohio River making it the most toxic river in the country
  2. Violations of the Clean Water Act are going unprosecuted
  3. 49% of lakes and reservoirs are contaminated above EPA safe levels

Amazingly, in some cases this is permitted pollution; however, the number of permit violations appears to be growing. Unfortunately, the political will to enforce water pollution laws is not as strong as it needs to be. So, under the auspices of the Protect Our Water campaign ORF conducts independent investigations to identify polluters threatening our waterways and drinking water supplies, and force compliance with the law. DONATE NOW. SUPPORT THE PROTECT OUR WATER PROGRAM.

Clean Water Act Regulations

Coal Ash Rule - (2018) EPA eases rule to allow states more flexibility to regulate coal ash ponds. (2015) USEPA finalized a regulation after a 5-year public review and comment process..

Clean Water Rule - (2019) EPA proposing to rescind 2015 rule. PUBLIC NOTICE RELEASED. Comment period closes April 15, 2019.
Read the proposed rule here. 

A sampling of some organizations' responses:

(2015) USEPA issued Clean Water Rule to clarify definition of waters to be protected for USEPA and US Army Corps of Engineers

Water Quality Standards

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) - a quasi-regulatory agency created to control pollution of the Ohio River - sets baseline water quality standards for the Ohio River.  Ohio River states may then elect to adopt those standards or more strict ones.  All must comply with Clean Water Act regulations and are subject to USEPA approval

ALERT - June 6, 2019. ORSANCO Commission Meeting, Radisson Hotel Cincinnati Riverfront, Covington, KY. ORSANCO voted to make adoption of its water quality standards voluntary for member states. Commission also voted to investigate creating protocols for states to follow when adopting any standards.

Feb 14, 2019 - ORSANCO commissioners voted to proceed with a new round of public comment and hearings relative to a new proposal for amendment of the Pollution Control Standards --ORSANCO press release and proposal summary SEE proposal HERE. Stay tuned! You can receive alerts via email from ORF and via our Facebook page.

Oct 4, 2018 ORSANCO commisioners decide not to vote on controversial proposal (see below). See statement from environmental groups applauding this decision. Discussions with states and groups will continue to search and work for solutions to issues voiced by some states that led to the creation of this controversial proposal.

(2018) ORSANCO proposes to stop setting water quality standards for Ohio River

ORSANCO—the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission—met in June 2018 in Louisville, and decided as follows:

In recognition of the successes of the federal Clean Water Act and the related state water pollution control programs of member states, the Pollution Control Standards (PCS) should be revised by adding a provision that recognizes that water quality standards and criteria, as well as mixing zone requirements, and other provisions of the PCS are being adequately addressed by member states in accordance with programs appropriate for implementation of the federal Clean Water Act. To the extent that all member states are operating under such programs, the Commission may conclude that it need not continue the triennial review process related to the water quality criteria (and related provisions) of the PCS.

ORSANCO sets baseline standards for many chemicals that are discharged into the Ohio River at hundreds of points along the 981- mile-long river. Some of these standards go beyond what U.S. EPA and state regulatory agencies require. 

Talking Points

  1. Several states rely on ORSANCO’s standards and adopt them as their own. If ORSANCO no longer sets these standards, those states will have to expend the financial resources to develop the requisite standards.
  2. ORSANCO should be setting uniform standards with the collective input of all basin states.
  3. If all Ohio River states have to develop their own standards, then the situation can lead to interstate conflicts when an upriver state has weaker standards that lead to increased pollution treatment costs for a downriver state. This would, inevitably, lead to litigation among the states.

(2016) ORSANCO commissioners vote to suspend variance rule and yield any such decision to individual states.

(October 2010) ORSANCO commissioners voted to adopt a variance rule that will allow states to permit more toxic pollution of the Ohio River.  It will be up to the watershed states (Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania) to decide whether they will adopt the ORSANCO rule.  The rule allows polluters to obtain variances (a/k/a waivers) from having to comply with requirements for biological chemicals of concern (i.e., mercury and other toxins).  Thus, polluters could be given a pass and there will no longer be an incentive to seek alternative products or processes.  The Clean Water Act requires use of Best Available Technology.

(2016) ORSANCO votes to rescind variance rule and allow each ORSANCO member state to individually decide on variances for companies under their jurisdiction.  


(2016) ORSANCO approved a provision removing its decisionmaking process regarding allowance of mixing zones by dischargers, instead placing that responsibility in the hands of indivudual states with jurisdiction over companies that discharge to the Ohio River.


The Commission Standards currently include water quality criteria and effluent limits for fecal coliform and e. coli bacteria. There is considerable work being done to identify better bacterial indicators. The current criteria development plan for US EPA calls for new criteria to protect recreational use in 2012. There is also a need for better pathogen criteria to protect drinking water use.

Applicability of New US EPA Human Health Criteria

US EPA has adopted several new human health criteria in recent years. Derivation of those criteria involves certain assumptions about the rate of fish consumption and the exposure to a given pollutant from sources other than drinking water and eating fish. The Commission is seeking information as to whether or not the assumptions used in the derivation of the national criteria are valid for the Ohio River.


ORSANCO convened a work group including representatives of state and federal environmental and fisheries agencies, universities, and the power industry to review its current temperature criteria as well as studies of thermal impacts that have been completed since those criteria were adopted. The work group recommended a methodology for deriving new temperature criteria. The methodology and resulting criteria are under review by state agency staff.

Translators for Metals

ORSANCO has conducted monitoring for dissolved and total recoverable metals at 17 Ohio River sites for over ten years. The data have been used to develop translators for relating dissolved and total recoverable metals concentrations. The translators would allow permit limits, which must be based on total recoverable concentrations, to be developed to meet in stream criteria, which limit the dissolved portion.


USEPA criteria adoption pending.

Wet Weather Standards

ORSANCO has reported that in a given year there are 180 days where wastewater standards are violated.  If adopted these proposals will make it legal to allow sewage into the Ohio River. This will be bad for public health, the economy, and the river.  Sewer overflows are a nagging but persistent problem nationwide.  More


Proposal Documents: Proposal summary  Draft standards-text  Additional issues for comment   Q & A

Ohio River Navigation

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) manages the Ohio River for navigation interests. There are large locks and dams on the river which have dramatically altered the habitat and water quality of the river. Early in its history, ORF was successful in highlighting deficiencies in USACE's navigation models and cost efficiency claims. More

For more information or to find out how you can help, please contact us!