Once an embarrassment, the Cuyahoga River now inspires people and demonstrates that cooperation, laws, a watershed approach and hard work are essential to repair and protect valuable water resources.

The media attention to the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire created an enduring awareness of pollution’s harmful effect on environmental and human health. It forced citizens and lawmakers to acknowledge that water and other natural resources were in deep trouble because of human activity. That fire inspired the movement that resulted in the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the creation of state and federal environmental protection agencies and the first Earth Day.

Since then, citizens, community groups, businesses and local, state and federal governments have worked hard on restoring the Cuyahoga River watershed. Communities are removing dams, which trap pollution, to improve oxygen levels and fish movement. The discharge from industries and cities has improved dramatically. The Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, designated in 1974, became a national park in 2000; it has saved miles of the river from suburban development. Nesting bald eagles have even returned there after more than 70 years. Fish have also returned. In the summer of 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crews found 40 different fish species, including steelhead trout and northern pike.  But because the Cuyahoga River’s water quality was sacrificed for economic growth for more than a century, problems on the river and in Lake Erie remain. Some areas are still not fit for recreational use because of pollution, dredging and dumping that occurred decades ago. And health advisories recommend limiting consumption of sport fish due to poor water quality.

In less than 200 years, how did a once-pristine river turn into a cesspool that could no longer support life? By the late 1800s, a growing number of oil refineries, chemical manufacturers, steel producers, rubber companies and other industries and communities sprang up along its banks. Beginning in 1898, the river mouth, which had been moved in 1827, was widened. Then, beginning in 1936, the river was widened and the channel deepened so that 600-foot freighters could navigate safely. This allowed companies along the river to prosper, but this intense industrial activity and population growth significantly polluted the water and surrounding land as factory waste and sewage were dumped directly into the water.

Improvements in the Cuyahoga, and other Lake Erie tributaries have contributed to a cleaner lake. But new problems remind us that the Clean Water Act reduced industrial pollution. Loopholes in the act leave smaller streams vulnerable. And it doesn’t control contamination from urban runoff, suburban sprawl and agriculture.

Combined with excessive amounts of sewage still dumped into waterways when aging wastewater treatment facilities can’t handle runoff, these pollutants are increasingly making tributaries such as the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie unfit for swimming and fishing. They also increase algae blooms and dead zones in the lake and threaten the drinking water for millions. Because we can’t survive without clean water, dealing with these problems must ensure economic growth doesn’t once again destroy precious water quality.

ANNA McCARTNEY, a communications and education specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant, can be reached by e-mail at axm40@psu.edu.

Issue Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Main Office: Tom Ridge Environmental Center 301 Peninsula Dr., Suite 3 Erie, PA 16505 814-217-9011