We all know the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. What’s being done to clean it up?
There’s lots of buzz starting to generate these days around the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, as local residents and water enthusiasts begin gearing up for the 50 year anniversary of the last time the river caught on fire in 1969. Since then, many changes have taken place along the Cuyahoga and much effort has been made to restore the river and its watershed.
Mayor Carl Stokes – 1969 Cuyahoga River News Conference (clevelandhistorical.org)
The infamous 1969 fire was actually the last of a series of occasions in which the river “caught on fire.” In reality, it wasn’t the river itself that was burning, but the oil, sewage, industrial waste, and flammable debris floating on the water’s surface. In addition to the spectacle of a burning river, all of this contamination heavily degraded water quality, damaged terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitats, and ultimately led to a major loss of biodiversity.
Since 1969 much as been done to clean up the Cuyahoga and other rivers like it. The passage of the Clean Water Act came a few years later in 1972 and sought to make all of America’s rivers ‘fishable and swimmable’ by establishing the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants and by setting quality standards for surface waters. Fifteen years later in 1987 a binational agreement between the United States and Canada called the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) sought to bring more attention to the most polluted waters specifically in the Great Lakes. According to the GLWQA, each of the polluted rivers, called Areas of Concern (AOC), were required to develop Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) that identify all of the environmental problems (called Beneficial Use Impairments, or BUIs) in the area and enlist local advisory committees and environmental protection agencies to restore them.
For the Cuyahoga River, only the lower 46.5 miles are included in the Area of Concern. So are all of the tributaries that drain into that section of the river and the shoreline adjacent to the river’s mouth, including tributaries that flow directly into Lake Erie. The entire AOC covers an area that stretches from Big Creek on the western edge of Cuyahoga County to Euclid Creek in the east, and from the shore of Lake Erie south all the way to the City of Akron. In total, the area spans parts of Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, Portage, Summit, and Medina counties, and includes 10 BUIs that the RAP has targeted for restoration:
- Restrictions on Fish Consumption
- Degradation of Fish Populations
- Fish Tumors or Other Deformities
- Degradation of Benthos
- Restrictions on Navigational Dredging
- Eutrophication or Undesirable Algae
- Beach Closings (Recreational Contact)
- Public Access and Recreation Impairments
- Degradation of Aesthetics
- Loss of Fish Habitat
In short, lots of people are working to clean the river up and delist the BUIs. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is collaborating with the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern Advisory Committee to lead restoration actions. The Advisory Committee is facilitated by the nonprofit Cuyahoga River Restoration, and is made up of representatives from Ohio Sea Grant and other organizations including nonprofit community groups, businesses, government agencies, and local residents concerned with the health of the watershed.
Some of the restoration activities that have taken place are complex and expensive undertakings, such as removing dams or installing green stormwater infrastructure to reduce combined sewer overflows (during heavy rains untreated stormwater and wastewater combine and discharge directly into the river). Other activities are much smaller in scale, like restoring riverbank vegetation, working with landowners to plant riparian buffers, and developing fish habitat along barren stretches of the shipping channel close to the river’s mouth. Ultimately, much of the progress to delist BUIs will be dependent on education and outreach that informs the public about the problems facing the Cuyahoga River and encourages local residents to contribute to potential solutions.
If you are interested in learning more about the Cuyahoga River, or would like to contribute to restoration efforts, there are plenty of opportunities. To get started, check out the website for the AOC’s facilitating organization, Cuyahoga River Restoration, or the Cuyahoga Valley National Park located in the river’s headwaters. You will be able to read about all of the great things happening to keep the Cuyahoga fishable and swimmable and see how you can personally make a difference. We have come a long way over the past several decades!
See you on the river!
Scott Hardy is an Extension Educator with the Ohio Sea Grant College Program.