What’s The River Worth?

Wheeling Intelligencer
4 September 2011
Mike Myer

Here along the western edge of West Virginia, we revel in a sort of split-personality syndrome. Yes, we are Mountaineers. How, in one of the most hilly states in the nation, could we be otherwise?

But then, there's the river. We call it the "beautiful Ohio" for good reasons. It, too, is part of who we are.

In fact, to those of us in the Ohio Valley, the river is at least as much a part of our psyche as are the surrounding hills. At times we love it for its beauty and the recreational opportunities it affords us. At times, when the muddy flood water invades our homes, we don't love it so much.

A couple of conversations during the past two weeks made me think more about the river's value than its beauty.

On Friday, I spent a few minutes with members of an Ohio River Sanitation Commission research crew who travel the river checking the quality, quantity and diversity of aquatic life. What they do is fascinating (check them out this weekend at their 2,200-gallon aquarium on the grounds of the Vintage Raceboat Regatta at Heritage Port).

But why they do it is interesting, too.

The river is an incredible resource, ORSANCO biologist Ryan Argo reminded me. One reason for checking aquatic life in the Ohio is to keep tabs on the health of that resource.

Think about it: Hundreds of thousands of people get their drinking water from the river. As many use it to carry away the (hopefully) treated sewage they generate. It is a key transportation artery for industry, including local coal mines. Some industries use water from the river for purposes such as generating power (those huge white plumes above cooling towers are water from the river).

The valley carved by the Ohio, wider in some spots, narrower in others, provides sites for our homes and businesses, as well as some excellent farmland.

And there's the recreational component. There's nothing quite like a day on the river, either in a fishing boat or behind a ski boat.

In many ways, the Ohio River is who we are. But what, in dollars and cents terms, is its value to us?

Several days before I talked with the ORSANCO crew, I met Neil Hawkins, who's a vice president with Dow Chemical Co.

Hawkins told me about a $10 million project involving Dow and The Nature Conservancy. A story we published in The Intelligencer yesterday outlined the collaboration.

The project excites Hawkins not just because of its business potential but also because he's got a strong streak of conservationist in him. Not everyone sees intrinsic value in nature, however.

Who can blame a company president or plant manager for worrying first about the bottom line and a lot later about a stand of trees or a stream beside the factory? That's what they're paid to do. Behaving otherwise would be cheating their employers and, perhaps, stockholders.

Hawkins thinks there's a way to make everyone happy, by demonstrating the dollar value of plant and animal life, water, air and land to businesses.

He and The Nature Conservancy could be on to something big.

Myer can be reached at: Myer@news-register.net.