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The river runs through US

The Ohio River's thousand-mile run offers scientists fresh insights into the health of America's waterways, pollution threats, and troubled aquatic life.

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It's the tributary to America's heart.

From its start in Pittsburgh, Pa., at the confluence with the Allegheny and Monongahela, to where it empties into the Mississippi in Cairo, Ill., the Ohio River makes up 10 percent of the nation's navigable waterways - and 40 percent of its river traffic. Endless coal barges feed the 49 power plants on its banks, supplying electricity to much of the Southeastern and Midwestern United States. Large-scale corn and soybean growers flank the river and irrigate with its water. Roughly 3 million Americans drink it.

Sixty years ago, the Ohio was so glutted with hops, coal ash, pig innards, steel waste, and chemical poisons that it actually stank. Today, the river faces subtler - though perhaps no less serious - threats: runoff from cattle farms and agricultural areas, overflows of raw sewage, and the invasion of an insidious new species.

This summer, a group of scientists from four local colleges set out to navigate the river's 981 miles, to test the scope of its problems and consider how - even whether - it can survive the challenges threatening many of the nation's waterways.

"This is no small thing," says microbiologist Miriam Kannan, readying one of the team's two boats for Day 5 of the 10-day expedition. "We are this river. It's a circle: from poop to drink and back again, the river runs through us."

Lewis and Clark rode this river, and thousands of "river rats" followed them west along its treacherous course, seeking their fortunes in flat-bottomed shanty-boats and patched-up skiffs. Before them, the Shawnee and Ojibwe fished its shallows and trapped along its banks. The Ohio spoke to all these, and on down the generations: to Mark Twain, to William Least Heat Moon, to so many others that by now it should be hoarse.

When we put in at tiny California, Ky., the river is running high with new rain. The Monark, the team's 18-foot research vessel (shaped like a bathtub toy, flying bright college pennants), chugs through water that looks like diner coffee with extra cream.

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