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River’s future is anything but clear sailing

Conditions were fine for canoeing on the Allegheny River during much of the early fall.

The weather was fairly warm, and thanks to the abnormally dry weather, the river was low. The daily discharge rate from the Kinzua Dam seemed to be below 2,000 cfs (cubic feet per second).

I could travel both upstream and down from our cabin on the Althom Eddy without much trouble, and had to use the rowing option on my canoe only if there was a fairly strong headwind.

Of course, the splendor of the autumn hues on the forested slopes above the river as the season advanced into October added to the enjoyment of the excursions.

The fall decline in power boat traffic on the Allegheny added to the pleasure of my outings, although there was an upsurge during the weekend when Tidioute hosted its annual fishing tournament.

However, I didn’t do any early fall swimming in the river this year, as the weather wasn’t quite warm enough. The latest I can recall swimming in the Allegheny was one October 2.

I may have been guilty of some “schadenfreude” during my river excursions when I considered the residents of the Mahoning Valley, the site of its problematic namesake river. (However, since I am also a resident of that valley, the pertinence of that German term, … which Webster’s defines as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others” may not be entirely appropriate in my case, since I am also a Mahoning Valley resident.)

The potential and the problems posed by the Mahoning River, which flows past downtown Youngstown and was once one of the nation’s most polluted rivers due to the steel mills that once lined its banks and used it as a sewer, are often in the local news.

One of the problems the river poses as a recreational source are the low dams that punctuate the river between Warren and the Pennsylvania boundary at Lowellville.

The need to remove these dams (which were installed to pool cooling water needed by the steel mills) is recognized, and Lowellville is moving to remove a dam situated there which will enhance the village as a site for canoeing and kayaking on the river.

However, I don’t recall ever seeing any sort of list of the low dams on the river that will need to be removed to realize the river’s full recreational. River users may be in the dark as to the sites of these dams.

An incident not long ago in which a woman almost drowned when her kayak went over one of the dams at Warren and capsized illustrated the risks the dams pose to boaters.

Recently there were a couple of interviews aired on WKBN-TV in Youngstown which didn’t do much toward promoting the Mahoning as a source of recreation.

One of the station’s leading newscasters, Stan Boney, asked a state Environmental Protection Agency official if the river is “swimmable,” having first noted that the river now runs fairly clear, in contrast with the days when the steel mills were operating.

It is also said that fish have returned to the river.

I recall the valley’s steel-mill era well, and I crossed the river every day on the Marshall Street bridge on my way to work in downtown Youngstown. The river then was opaque and clouds of steam rose from its waters, which were heated upstream at the mills, on cold mornings. Impressive oil slicks floated by under the bridge, as well as old tires and other debris, particularly when the river was running high.

The official replied that indeed the river was swimmable, since canoeing and kayaking were sanctioned.

But Boney then pointed to a state EPA document which itself advised against swimming in the river.

The official replied that he would look into the situation.

The newscaster next posed the “swimmable” question to a YSU professor with background in ecology and apparent knowledge of the river’s history.

She replied that wading in the river wouldn’t be wise, since underlying the river’s present fairly clean sediment would be the oily sediment deposited during the valley’s steelmaking era.

It didn’t take much for a viewer to deduce that if wading in the Mahoning wasn’t a very good idea, then neither would be swimming.

The professor’s remarks underscored the feasibility of the proposal made years ago by then-Congressman James Traficant that some 30 miles of the river from Warren to Lowellville be dredged to rid it of steel mill sludge. This dredging would have cost millions.

The proposal by the late congressman (who served eight year in prison after being convicted of corruption) never advanced very far, and it appears that steel-mill sediment will long remain a Mahoning River problem.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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