Pennsylvania Legacies #173: 25 Million Stewards

For more than 70 years, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) has worked with Pennsylvania and seven other states to improve water quality in the Ohio River Basin. In addition to its extensive monitoring and data collection efforts, ORSANCO offers programs to help people connect with their local waterways and become better stewards. Lily Jones talks with outreach specialist Nick Callahan about ORSANCO’s annual River Sweep cleanup and floating environmental education classroom.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) has collaborated with member states for over 70 years to improve water quality in the Ohio River Basin. Much of ORSANCO’s work revolves around monitoring and data collection. But the mission also has a public-facing component, engaging the nearly 25 million people they serve across the region.

Nick Callahan is the Environmental Education and Outreach Specialist at ORSANCO and the Foundation for Ohio River Education (FORE), an affiliate organization of ORSANCO. He helps run programs to help people connect with their local waterways and hopefully become better stewards of the Ohio River. Currently based out of Cincinnati, he’s hoping to bringing those programs to more people in the Ohio River Basin.

Callahan hopes to expand FORE programs up and down the Ohio River. Image credit: Nick Callahan

One of FORE’s flagship programs is a floating classroom offering environmental education lessons for students from elementary through high school. From a boat on the Ohio River, environmental education staff teach students the basics of water sampling and native ecology. 

“Really it’s trying to take every part of a river analysis or stream analysis and out it all into one big program, just to teach students how scientists work on the river, as well as try and foster some environmental stewardship along the way,” said Callahan. 

ORSANCO also organizes an annual river cleanup, called River Sweep. The program started in 1989 as a collaboration between state governments in the Cincinnatti area, and has grown to include cleanup events all over the entire Ohio River Basin. While the cleanup used to happen on one day in June, during the COVID pandemic organizers switched to smaller, locally-focused events. What started as temporary safety measure has now been adopted as the official River Sweep format moving forward, as local organizers including municipal governments, community watershed organizations, and businesses gave feedback that the more flexible format allowed them to shape the cleanup to best fit their needs. In Pennsylvania, riverbanks are often covered with invasive knotweed by mid-June, making it difficult to access the river to collect trash, so some Sweep organizers held their events earlier in the spring. Callahan hopes that this new format will encourage more organizations in Pennsylvania to host River Sweeps. Expanding ORSANCO’s environmental education and outreach programs to the while watershed is one of Callahan’s goals. 

A River Sweep cleanup. Image credit: Nick Callahan

“It’s a goal of mine to really challenge us as an organization, since we serve all eight of our member states in the Ohio River Basin, I really want to have our programs expand through that. And the way that I am hoping to do that is to bring our boat program that I mentioned at the start, I think that’s a really good successful program that has the opportunity to work up and down the Ohio River,” he said.

While designing programs that feel relevant to people from Illinois to Pennsylvania can be a challenge, Callahan said that the most basic message he hopes to get across can resonate with anyone, no matter their background. 

“It really boils down to the fact that water is life. And that is such a good starting point for environmental education,” he said. “We all rely on water whether you’re an individual, you’re a business, you’re an organization, whoever you are, water is important to you. If you’re an animal, a plant, water is important to you.” 


Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission

Foundation for Ohio River Education

Participate in a River Sweep