Standing on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland’s Industrial Valley, the river looks like chocolate milk surrounded by industry – or the remnants of industry slowly being reclaimed by nature. But in 1969, this was one of the nation’s most polluted waterways
“On the day the river caught on fire, I had a job working at J&L Steel Mill on the docks of the river,” remembered Tim Donovan, the executive director of Canalway Partners, which works on community outreach for the Towpath Trail.
He arrived at work that day a few hours after the fire was put out. But he said, even on days when the river hadn’t caught fire, the river was in bad shape.
“Working along that river — when you looked down — it was like a bubbling cauldron,” Donovan says. “And you’d see things floating by and you thought maybe they were dead dogs. But you’d look a little closer, and they were rats. But their bodies were blown up due to all the toxicity they’d absorbed. The standing rule on the job was, if you fell in the river, you go right to the hospital. Do not pass go.”
Fifty years ago, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, though, but it become a big deal across the country when Time Magazine ran an article on the fire. But the river has rebounded in the decades since.
Three miles up-river is the former site of Harshaw Chemical. Rob Stoerkel, who works on permitting for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, was there last month leading a tour of the spot where the Big Creek meets the Cuyahoga.
“We know that things are improving,” Stoerkel says. “One reason is the river is no longer yellow and stinking of oil and sewage. When water quality is evaluated in the environment, it is done by looking at what is living in the water. Things like the Index of Bionic Integrity — or the IBI — which uses samples of plants and macroinvertebrates like crayfish, snails and insects.”
Stoerkel attributes much of the improvement in water quality to Project Clean Lake, the city’s deal with the EPA to eventually capture 98% of sewer overflows entering the river.
Cutting Off Runoff
Another 30 miles upriver, at Akron’s sewage treatment plant, you can get a good picture of how sewer overflows affect water chemistry throughout the river, not just in Cleveland. Cities like Akron have been working for decades to mitigate overflows that send untreated wastewater out into the river.
Plantmanager Brian Gresser is the plant manager at the Akron Water Reclamation Facility, as it’s officially known. He showed off how the area’s wastewater is treated before it’s pumped into the Cuyahoga.
“This is basically the front door to the plant,” Gresser says.
It’s where all of the water from Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Fairlawn – everything that gets flushed down the toilet – ends up. It’s also where all the water travelling through storm drains gets treated. Having worked here for decades, Gresser has seen some unique things travel through storm drains.
“I’ve seen fish, turtles, money, jewelry, skateboards, balls, basketballs,” he says. “I saw an orange traffic barrel, inflatable canoes.”
The facility sits right next to the Cuyahoga. Other than a distinct odor, it’s a picturesque spot with sloping green lawns and trees in the distance. Pulling up an app on his phone, Gresser checked the plant’s activity in real time.
“So right now, the flow is 74.77 million gallons per day,” Gresser says. “And that’s an average flow for us.”
He also noted that “on the flip side, it can actually jump up into the upper 200s, 240-250 million gallons, per day during a rain event.”
“If we have more than an inch of rain, you wouldn’t want to go in the river for at least 24-48 hours,” adds program manager Pat Gsellman.
It’s all part of a $1.2 billion project overhauling Akron’s sewer system. Like Cleveland, Akron is under a court order to help mitigate combined sewer overflows (CSOs), the places where untreated wastewater meets storm runoff in the same pipe.
“To tell you the truth, that’s the main concern with the water quality in the river at this point,” Gsellman says.
The rush of water during heavy rains can overload CSOs, sending raw sewage out into the Cuyahoga and other waterways.
Gsellman and his team have spent nearly $600 million so far separating sewer lines from storm drains and even boring a 6,000 foot tunnel to hold rainwater and combined sewer overflow until it can be sent to the treatment plant.
When it would rain 50 years ago, though, the situation with combined sewer overflow was different.
“Oh, they would all overflow, almost instantaneously when it would start to rain, those overflows would go,” he says.
By the time the project is expected to be finished in 2027, Gsellman says, the city’s combined sewer overflow points will be cut by more than half.
Fishing The Industrial Valley
The region’s sewer systems are now being cleaned up and industrial pollution is being monitored. But none of that matters to Mike Zimmerman, who’s been fishing at a spot in Cleveland’s Industrial Valley for over a decade.
“Oh, it’s just beautiful, magnificent,” Zimmerman says. “The water’s calm [and] cool. You’ve got a nice little whirlpool in front of you [and] the other side – green trees. Just calm [with] birds chirping in the back. I’m down here three or four times a week.”
Zimmerman’s fishing hole is across the river from Harshaw Chemical – a company that once produced uranium for the Manhattan Project. The site is currently being studied for remediation by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has found some uranium, thorium and radium in the soil.
“I mean, there’s a lot of chemicals that [are] going in the water, but I’ll still fish it,” Zimmerman says. “We catch big catfish out of here. Sometimes we eat them; sometimes we just throw them back. It’s very relaxing.”
Go further up-river, another 13 miles, and you’ll find the Brecksville Dam.
Pamela Barnes, community engagement supervisor with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, says she’s looking forward to the dam coming out this fall, since it will improve flow on the river. And that will continue bringing the river back to life.
“Once the ecosystem has started to recover, those native species are coming back. Species of fish actually means that bugs are coming back,” Barnes says. “All those macroinvertebrates, they provide food. So if they weren’t there, then the bigger fish wouldn’t be there. And the Bald Eagle wouldn’t be here.”
Eagles’ nests have become an increasingly frequent and exciting find along the river, especially in the national park, and even up-river, where the pollution and sewer runoff are less of a factor.
On the Upper Cuyahoga, the river is pristine and slow moving. It meanders from its headwaters in Geauga County down through Mantua, where Bill Zawiski, an environmental supervisor with the Ohio EPA, stands on a bridge over the river.
Zawiski marvels at just how far the Cuyahoga has come.
“The river is not something you turn your back to,” Zawiski says. “The river is something now that you enjoy.”
The Upper Cuyahoga has always been a hot spot for canoeing, but Zawiski says you can now see paddlers up and down the river.
“And so folks are engaged. They go to the river, they play in the river, they paddle the river, they fish the river,” Zawiski says. “And that is totally different than what would have been 50 years ago.”