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#bioPGH Blog: What Happens on the Mon
Feb 09

#bioPGH Blog: What Happens on the Mon

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Science Education and Research Outreach Coordinator


Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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We know how the saying goes, but what happens in the Monongahela River stays in the Monongahela River…and the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. If you live within Pittsburgh proper, there is a good chance you drive over one of our three rivers on a regular basis. They are a source of drinking water for many of us, a beautiful part of our scenery, and a busy point of recreation. Of our riverine trio, the Monongahela has an intriguing place in our daily life and our natural history, so let’s learn more about it!

Here in Pittsburgh, we know that the Monongahela River (a.k.a., the Mon) flows northward from headwaters in West Virginia to meet the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh at the Point State Park, forming the Ohio River. The Ohio River then travels westward, forming state boundaries as it travels along Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois—eventually meeting the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois. From there, the Mississippi flows southward until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. A more fun way to think about it, if bridges weren’t an issue, a Pittsburgher could ride the giant yellow ducky from the Point all the way to the Atlantic Ocean!

In fact, a Pennsylvania-based steamboat company made that very trip a possibility in 1815! The Monongahela and Ohio Steamboat Company, eager to demonstrate the accomplishments of their new technology, sent their steamer the Enterprise on the 2200-mile voyage from New Orleans up the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Monongahela Rivers back to Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Considering the limited transportation options at the time, travel by river seemed the new frontier of possibility.

However, the thousands of miles of waterway across the country should give us pause as we realize how connected we all are.  Waters from West Virginia and Pennsylvania will eventually travel great distances, carrying with it anything that we have allowed into our waterways. This was especially problematic very recently in our history. As late as 1967, the Mon was so heavily contaminated by the city’s industrial legacy that fish couldn’t survive in its waters. Imagine living downstream of the Steel City a century ago! In the last few decades, though, reductions in industrial pollution have greatly improved water quality, and fish populations have started to recover. In fact, a 2010 Fish and Boat Commission survey detected 43 different species of fish living in the Mon, and the Monongahela’s watershed even had its own Watershed Restoration Action Strategy through the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA. We have come a long way in cleaning up our local rivers, but we still have work to do. As we continue to move forward, it’s important that we remember to be good neighbors to the states downstream. As the poem says, no man is an island, operating alone; but I guess now we can see that no river is isolated either!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: With fishing, boating and kayaking, the possibilities for recreation on the Monongahela River are endless! However, we do have an important opportunity to be stewards of our exciting resource. As an older city, Pittsburgh’s combined sewer system, which (literally) combines storm runoff and sewage into a single system, can cause trouble in the water. Any time a heavy rain storm rolls through the area, raw sewage overflows directly into the Mon (and the Allegheny) at defined locations. The City of Pittsburgh is trying to combat this problem by reducing storm runoff. This is where we come in! By encouraging the use of permeable streets and sidewalks in our neighborhoods and by capturing rainfall through more trees and green spaces plus the use of rain barrels, we can dramatically reduce how much rain water is forced into the sewers. This will help keep our river much cleaner and safer!

Continue the Conversation: Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.

Photos: Wikimedia user Dllu CC-BY-SA-4.0 and Billy Hathorn CC-BY-SA-3.0


DCNR: Monongahela River

Work Public Library Online: Monongahela and Ohio Steamboat Company  

EPA: Monongahela River Basin Aquatic Biology 1975 

PA DEP: Watershed restoration action strategies 

EPA: Soak up the Rain – Trees Help Reduce Runoff 

Fish and Boat Commission: Monongahela River Biological Monitoring Study 2010 

PGH2O: Going Green