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WKSU News marks the 50th anniversary with the series, Watershed.

Watershed: State of the Cuyahoga

photo of Cuyahoga River
The Cuyahoga River's rebirth is evident in The Flats, where industrial pollution has been cleaned up over the past 50 years, allowing recreation to thrive.

Fifty years ago, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. And it really didn’t become a big deal nationally until more than a month later when Time magazine ran an article on the fire.

Fifty years later, the river has rebounded. Watershed is a series from WKSU News looking at our waterways and what the future holds for them. In our opening story, we take a look at the current state of “the burning river.”

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 that are slowly being reclaimed by nature. But in 1969, this was one of the nation’s most polluted waterways.

photo of Tim Donovan
Tim Donovan remembers seeing dead rats -- swollen with chemicals -- which he mistook for dogs, when he worked on the Cuyahoga in 1969.

“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. 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.”

From dogs to fish

photo of Rob Stoerkel, Big Creek, Cuyahoga
Rob Stoerkel (center, in blue) surveys the area where Big Creek meets the Cuyahoga. He says the river's progress since 1990 can be measured by the Index of Biotic Integrity, Invertebrate Community Index, and Modified Index of Well-Being, all of which measure the health and amount of living organisms in the water.

Three miles up-river is the former site of Harshaw Chemical. That’s where we find Rob Stoerkel, who works on permitting for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. Last month, he was there leading a tour of the spot where the Big Creek meets the Cuyahoga.

“We know that things are improving. 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 Biotic 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.

photo of Pat Gsellman, Brian Gresser
Pat Gsellman (left) heads the Akron Waterways Renewed project. Brian Gresser is the manager of the Akron Water Reclamation Plant, which sits on acres of sloping lawns right next to the Cuyahoga, just outside Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

From Cleveland to Akron
About 30 miles upriver — at Akron’s sewage treatment plant — you can get a good picture of how sewer overflows affect water chemistry up and down 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. Plant Manager 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.”

This is where all of the water from Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Fairlawn, everything that gets flushed down the toilet comes.

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. 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. And that’s an average flow for us.”

But then he noted that “on the flip side, it can actually jump up into the upper 200s: 240-250 million 

photo of Akron Water Reclamation plant
The Akron Water Reclamation facility sits on the Cuyahoga. Staff there have seen everything from turtles to skateboards show up in the water at the plant.

gallons per day during a rain event.”

When that happens, Pat Gsellman — program manager of Akron Waterways Renewed — said “if we have more than an inch of rain, you wouldn’t want to go in the river for at least 24-48 hours.”

Curbing combined sewer overflows
It's a $1.2 billion project overhauling Akron’s sewer system. Like in Cleveland, Akron is under a court order to help mitigate combined sewer overflows -- or 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.”

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. But when it would rain 50 years ago, 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.”

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.

photo of Mike Zimmerman, Justin Morad
Michael Zimmerman (left) and Justin Morad have enjoyed fishing the Cuyahoga -- at a spot in Cleveland's Industrial Valley -- for over a decade.

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. 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.

“We catch big catfish out of here. Sometimes we eat them; sometimes we just throw them back. It’s very relaxing.”

Bringing the river back in Brecksville
Go further up-river – another 13 miles – and you’ll find the Brecksville Dam. Pamela Barnes is Community

Pamela Barnes of the CVNP
Pamela Barnes with the CVNP says the river is getting healthier. And one way to measure that is the reappearance of species such as the Northern Hogsucker.

Engagement Supervisor with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 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. 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.”

But eagles’ nests have become an increasingly frequent and exciting find along the river, especially in the national park, and even upriver, where the pollution and sewer runoff are less of a factor.

Paddling the Upper Cuyahoga
On the Upper Cuyahoga, the river is pristine and slow moving. It meanders from its headwaters in Geauga County down through Mantua, where we meet Bill Zawiski, an environmental supervisor with the Ohio EPA. Standing on a bridge with the river under their feet, Zawiski marvels at just how far the Cuyahoga has come.

“The river is not something you turn your back to. The river is something now that you enjoy.”

photo of Upper Cuyahoga
The Headwaters Trail in Mantua offers a view of the slow-moving Upper Cuyahoga. It's a stark contrast to the faster middle and lower rivers, which have rebounded significantly in the past 50 years.

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. And that is totally different than what would have been 50 years ago.”

In our next installment of Watershed, we take a look at the Black River, the recovery it’s made, and the work left to be done.

photo of Cuyahoga River and its tributaries
A map of the Cuyahoga River produced by K. Musser based on hydrologic data from the National Hydrography Dataset. All other features from the National Atlas.

Correction:  This story originally referred to the "Index of Bionic Integrity." The correct word is biotic.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.
Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.