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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Ohio EPA Looks Forward to 50th Anniversary of Cuyahoga River Fire With Detailed Report on Recovery

The Cuyahoga River was once the symbol of America’s neglect of its natural resources.  But the river that burned has bounced back and continues to improve.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair joins a group of scientists detailing the recovery of our crooked river.

The sun sparkles on the Cuyahoga as it flows through the city of Munroe Falls just upstream from Akron.

It’s idyllic, apart from the occasional gunshot from a nearby police firing range.

A team of scientists from the Ohio EPA are dipping nets into the fast moving water looking for aquatic insects.

Ohio EPA intern Owen Miller is part of the team assessing the biological health of the Cuyahoga River in Munroe Falls and other locations.

EPA Intern Owen Miller examines his initial haul - some water beetles and a worm-like crane fly larva. He's hoping the next pass will include other bugs, “mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies - they give us the best general idea of what water quality is like based on how tolerant or intolerant they are…”

His boss, Angela Dripps is head of the biological sampling section of the state EPA.

She says a detailed look at the relative abundance and variety of bugs is the best way to determine the health of a river.

“There are different pollution tolerances even within one particular group of insects, so just saying there’re mayflies here is a good thing, but now we can really see how good.  If we see four or five different species of mayflies that’s a more positive thing then just seeing a bunch of the same kind.”

Dripps says Ohio was the first state to use surveys of aquatic insects as part of the formal assessment of water quality.

“Not only were we the first, we’ve been doing it a lot longer than anybody, so we have one of the largest databases of its kind in the world of aquatic biological data."

She says the detailed data on bugs and other invertebrates allow scientists to, "compare what’s been happening historically in rivers and streams in Ohio and see how things have changed over time.”

Cuyahoga Fish Bounce Back
The biological assessment also includes finding out what fish are living here.

The team uses an electrified net powered by a floating generator to shock fish and scoop them into a bucket.

A photo of people fishing.
Drew Phillips, front, uses an electroshock net to capture fish in the Cuyahoga along with interns Jordan Jenkins (left) and Hailey Tiarks (right).

We see bass, bluegill, perch, and minnows, plus redfin pickerel, greenside darter and others that are only found in clean flowing streams - 19 species in all.

It’s double the number found here when a dam blocked the river.

Bill Zawiski, head of the region’s surface water division at the state EPA, says the removal of the Munroe Falls dam in 2006 transformed this section from a stagnant pool to one of the state’s healthiest streams.

“Within a few years after upstream here actually exceeded our expectations and met what we called exceptional, so it became ecologically on par with the Grand River and the Chagrin River.”

He saw the same improvements after the river was diverted around the Kent dam in 2004, and the recent removal of dams in downtown Cuyahoga Falls.

It’s a far cry from where the river was 50 years ago.

The Legacy of the Burning River
A news report from the late 1960's warns, “the Cuyahoga River in Ohio is so loaded with the waste products of petroleum distillation that it is actually in danger of catching fire…”

And that's exactly what happened in June of 1969.

Oil soaked debris lodged under a railroad trestle burst into flame, burning the bridge and spreading fire along the length of the lower Cuyahoga.

No pictures of the 1969 fire exist, but a larger fire on Cuyahoga in 1952 caused around $1 million in damage.

Studies dating back to the 1950’s showed a river chocked by raw sewage, acids and industrial chemicals, devoid of life for much of its length between Akron and Cleveland.

But Ohio EPA director Craig Butler says the burning river caught the attention of the nation.

“Shortly after that Congress actually passed something, The Clean Water Act, bipartisan…almost unheard of today.”

He says the next goal is removal of the massive concrete dam downstream at Gorge Metro Park.

Preliminary plans for removal of the dam and the tons of sediment behind it have been released, but Butler would not commit to a timeframe for the project.

“I see it on the horizon," he says, "in my lifetime, either as director or not, we will see the Cuyahoga River free-flow again and the Gorge dam will be gone.”

Butler says the $65 million removal project has support from the US EPA, despite ongoing changes in the agency in the new administration.

Meanwhile, EPA scientist Angela Dripps sees people using the river today in ways unimaginable to previous generations.

“Everybody’s out kayaking, they’re bike trails all over…healthy rivers and streams support that kind of lifestyle.”

The 2017 assessment of biological data from the Cuyahoga River will be presented in a detailed report issued in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the year the river caught fire and sparked the modern environmental movement.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.