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Reflecting on the state of the Cuyahoga, its future, 55 years after infamous fire

A black and white photo of a large black cloud of smoke and water being sprayed on a fire.
James Thomas
Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University
A 1952 fire on the Cuyahoga River. There is no known photo of the 1969 blaze which launched a national movement towards protections for the nation's waterways.

Saturday marks the 55th anniversary of the infamous fire on the Cuyahoga River that spurred national action to protect waterways across the country. As work continues to clean up contamination left over from the industrial era, awareness of future threats must be considered to avoid repeating a troubled history in the waterway, environmentalists say.

The Cuyahoga River was long used as a dumping site for nearby industries which pumped sewage, grease and waste into the waterway at a time when the need for clean water wasn’t yet understood, Friends of the Crooker River Co-Founder Elaine Marsh said.

“Industry and municipalities had used the river as a sewer for about 200 years, and the culmination was in the industrial age. And so the water got worse and worse, until in 1969, when it was finally noticed because of the river fire.”

Marsh said she remembers when it was unsafe to even be near the river, but it wasn’t until the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 that significant, long-lasting change would occur.

Though the work may seem slow, Marsh said significant progress has been made in the last 55 years time.

The federal passage of the Clean Water Act, collaborative stewardship at the local level, and remediation projects, including ongoing dam removals led to major ecosystem and habitat restoration across the Cuyahoga River watershed, she said.

“We spent over 200 years dirtying our waterways, … and so it took 55 years only. To clean it up. That's my adult lifetime,” Marsh said. “It's not that long. It, in fact, is remarkably short.”

The possibility of water recreation and rising fish populations in the Cuyahoga are signs of improvement worth celebrating, Marsh said, but education around future threats to the waterways is essential to make sure past mistakes aren’t repeated

“We need to talk more and more about the value of restoration, particularly its quality of life and human health benefits,” she said, “but it really is important to think about not going back.”

One of the current concerns is stormwater runoff from the agricultural sector and other sources, Marsh said, so stakeholders should prepare to find solutions to protect the progress that’s been made in protecting our waterways.

“We cut down the trees, and we pave parking lots and put in rooftops and streets, and that accelerates the runoff from the watershed,” she said. “There's nothing to slow it down, and there's nothing to absorb it, and so we have an increase of pollutants that run off the land and also an increase in the volume of water, which is a problem for habitat.”

The emerging threat of stormwater runoff should serve as a reminder that work to keep the Cuyahoga River clean will never truly come to an end, Marsh said.

“We're never done protecting the environment because it's constantly changing,” she said. The influences on the environment are constantly changing, future impacts are constantly changing, and when we don't pay the money to protect the environment from getting dirty what we are doing is passing a deficit on to our children.”

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.