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Drought Out West, but Water in Northern Kentucky & Cincinnati is Still Plentiful

Due to a prolonged drought states like California are suffering a water shortage that has impacted its large agriculture industry and is the reason for mandatory water rationing there.

People within the Ohio River Basin, when reading about the situation out West, may have wondered about the water supply here at home.

Sam Dinkins is the Water Resources Assessment Manager for Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) and he says that people in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region are very fortunate to be so close to an extremely stable water source.

“The Ohio River basin is kind of thought of as a water-rich basin," Dinkins said, "meaning that we do receive a fair amount of precipitation compared to some other areas of the country, particularly the Southwest where you have a lot less precipitation. Then you couple that with some of the metropolitan areas in the Southwest where you have high demand and it really creates some real challenges there with some water supply and drought issues."

"The average conditions in the Ohio River basin compared to the California region is very different in the sense that typically we have much more precipitation than they do on average. What they are dealing with now is a prolonged drought of a duration that we don't typically experience here in the Ohio basin. We do encounter droughts, no doubt about that, but ours often don't last or are not as persistent as California and those states in the Southwest.”

Dinkins said that along with our own local agriculture, another important factor for a healthy river basin is to facilitate the heavy commercial navigation that takes place on the river.

“Obviously there is an impact for drought in terms of agriculture and navigation as well," Dinkins said. "The Ohio River has a series of locks and dams and the purpose for those on the base of the Ohio are all about navigation. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains those locks and dams, but the idea of those is that it maintains an adequate pool-level depth for the river so that commercial traffic—barges particularly— have enough clearance and have enough water there to have commercial navigation on the river. It wasn't too many years ago where there was a drought condition that did cause a disruption in navigation on the lower part of the Ohio River downstream toward the Illinois stretch, so you do experience those types of situations occasionally, but it's not that common.”

ORSANCO is drafting a report with data the organization has tracked for over five years concerning the water use in the Ohio River Basin that should be ready by June. In it, there will be comparisons to our own region's water use compared to other parts of the country.

It is important, Dinkins said, that people understand the difference between water use and water consumption. Water consumption is water used that does not return to the river. There is much more water use than water consumption on a daily basis thanks to industrial uses like coal-fire power plants.

“Water use is often equated to water withdrawal—how much water is taken out of a river," he said. "Just because there is a large water withdrawal doesn't mean that water was consumed and was not returned to the river. In many cases, like in the case of large power plants, they often drawl in a large amount of water. It goes through their plant and comes right back out downstream on the other side of their plant—it's used for cooling purposes.

So when you look at these water use numbers, you will see that the Ohio River when it comes to thermo-electric power production is extremely high compared to the rest of the country because we have so many coal-fire power plants in this region of the country. I know that 79 percent of the water that is withdrawn daily from the Ohio River is used for power production, but when you look at how much water is consumed, even though 79 percent of the withdrawals is for power production, it's something like 40 percent that is actually consumed for thermo-electric so it's much lower than what the overall withdrawal is.”

He said that 44 billion gallons of water are used each day from the Ohio River Basin which borders six states and is the primary water source for over 5 million people. Ten percent of the US population live in the Ohio River Basin. Still, for such a high number of water use every day, the public water supply is much smaller and is not currently at concerning levels.

“Public water supply is only 8 percent and that is the number two highest water use. The overall amount of water that is withdrawn is a small percentage of the total amount of water available in the Ohio River. So we are very fortunate that we have a very plentiful supply so that it can accommodate that level of withdrawals. The overall magnitude sounds like a very large number and it is, but the total water withdrawal from the Ohio River basin is 44 billion gallons a day. Collectively, though, that is a small fraction of the total water that is available in our basin.”

Nonetheless, being aware of our water use and being careful not to waste such a precious resource, remains important for the survival of the region, its people and wildlife. Also, the ability to drink clean water comes with a cost and a trade off as well.

“I think it's always important to be mindful of our use whether it's water or other resources that we have available to us,” Dinkins said. “While we have this plentiful supply, you do have the situation of the significant cost of public water supply. A lot of effort that goes into getting that water suitable for drinking purposes, so there is a lot of resources that go into that process. The sheer intake of the process, the treatment process and the distribution system, so there is a desire to be conscious of our use and we certainly don't want to have wasteful use of this vital resource that our region is dependent upon. I think a lot of people don't realize how vital the resource is.”

An example of how quickly a community can suffer from a lack of public water supply was illustrated last year in Charleston, West Virginia when an above-ground storage tank spilled into the river and contaminated the city's water supply.

“That event very much showed the residents there and many towns downstream of the importance of that water supply because the City of Charleston was without water for well over a week,” said Dinkins. “That event was a rather severe example because it completely stopped commerce in their city. All the businesses shut down and that created a lot of logistical issues with hospitals and that sort of thing.”

Another reason the people of this region are fortunate to live here is because of the high-caliber water treatment facilities the area enjoys. Dinkins called the Cincinnati Waterworks facility state-of-the-art and said that it garners world-wide attention for others looking to improve their own water-treatment concerns.

“It's pretty remarkable,” Dinkins said of the local water treatment. “The level of treatment that Cincinnati provides is a type that gets visitors from many, many different places from around the country and around the world even. When you work on a large metropolitan scale, there are some challenges that you have to deal with and the level of treatment that they provide is top-notch. Just a couple of months ago, they had an individual that was working on water security issues for the 2020 Olympics in Japan. This individual visited several treatment centers across the country to better understand how they deal with water security so that they can plan for their own issues during the Olympics. They then went to talk with Cincinnati Waterworks about their methods because they really are top of the line.”

Water use peaked in 1980 and had dropped since. The public water supply keeps going up because the population continues to grow, but some of the industrial uses have become more efficient and are now using less water for power production because there are less coal-fire power plants.

Water in the region of Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati remains rich in supply and seems to have long-term sustainability to our region. Conservation efforts, however, remain important to prevent waste. 

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor