News: The River Is a Playground

Paddlefest helps region rediscover the mighty Ohio

Jul 6, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Roni Moermond

Recreation can help conservation efforts on the Ohio River, according to Patricia Timm and Brewster Rhoads.

The Ohio River is plagued with bacteria and a bad reputation that keeps Cincinnatians apprehensive about using it as a means of recreation. But that could be changing, according to Brewster Rhoads, a board member of Ohio River Way (ORW).

"The truth is good news for those who want to boat and come down to the river," he says.

ORW is working to change the river's reputation by showing it to Cincinnatians as an asset for the city's arts, recreation, commerce and the preservation of heritage, Rhoads says.

Strict regulations have stopped commercial boats and ships from contaminating the river with toxins, so the river is generally much cleaner that it used to be, according to Jeanne Ison, spokeswoman for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO).

"When you recreate in the river, the main thing you worry about is bacteria levels," she says. "Overall, the bacteria levels in the river have been running really low this summer due to the lack of rainfall."

After a heavy rainfall, bacteria levels rise for the next two to three days due to the overflow of water in the city's sewage system, says Jason Heath, program manager for ORSANCO. Rainwater causes overflow of untreated sewage to leak into the river, he says.

"There is always going to be some risk of illness," Heath says.

"Higher levels of bacteria can cause gastrointestinal-type illnesses."

But the river is safe within a few days after a heavy rainfall, he says.

"I swim in it almost every day," says Rhoads, who owns a houseboat. "Frankly, the water quality of the river is better than it has been in 50 years."

ORW formed in 2002, shortly after the city of Newport, began efforts to use the river as a means for attracting business by opening Newport on the Levee. With a grant from the Metropolitan Growth Alliance and Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Patricia Timm, president of ORW, recruited volunteers to host the first Paddlefest. Hundreds of boaters brought their boats to participate in races and exhibits, showing the city, Timm says, how much fun the river can be.

The organization works in partnership with the Sierra Club and the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

Now a two-day event, Paddlefest raises more than $20,000 each year to help facilitate the construction of bike and water trails, promoting arts on the river as well as commerce and heritage and educational programs about the ecology of the river.

"I think that the city leaders believe that the riverfront is the future of the city," Timm says.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and plans for a riverfront park are a reflection of that, she adds. But lack of funds and public quarrels keep city management from focusing more on the river as a place for entertainment, Timm says.

ORW is interested in getting the "city reconnected with the river," Rhoads says. "The river is the reason this city is even here."

ORW is working to create a 150-mile trail from Maysville, Ky., to Madison, Ind., with Covington in the center, to highlight the assets of the river. Proposals to help the river attract business and make Cincinnati "one of the best places in the world" involve a six-mile corridor from downtown to Lunken Airport, according to Timm.

The water and greenway trail will bring several community and civic organizations into partnerships to help with completion.

"We believe so much in collaboration that we get people together who normally don't," Timm says.

With more than 1,000 people expected at this year's Paddlefest, Rhoads says the event is an effective way to promote the river is a great place for recreation.

"It touches people more personally and motivates them to participate in the river clean-up," he says.

By showing that people are embracing what the city has turned its back on, Cincinnati will become a better place to live and will be able to show off the natural beauty of the river, Rhoads says.

"We have challenges all over the community, but we also have a lot of assets," he says.

Paddlefest 2005 begins at 3 p.m. Friday with the Ohio River Festival at Four Seasons Marina. At 8:30 a.m. Saturday paddle races begin, with the Finish Line Celebration at the Public Landing at 10:30 a.m.

For more information, visit See the related To Do pick on page 26.