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Long-Term Health Of Cleveland's Polluted Waterways Relies On Tree-Planting

Kayaking on the Black River near Lorain. [photo: Matt Richmond / ideastream]

The main branch of the Black River stretches just over 15 miles and the mouth empties into Lake Erie in the City of Lorain. It’s one of fourteen rivers in the Great Lakes region listed as “Areas of Concern” by the Environmental Protection Agency due to pollution.  As part of the Be Well series “Tracking the Trees” Matt Richmond went out on the Black River to explore the role trees are playing in the clean up there.

Underneath the freighters and rusting mills that line the Black River near Lorain, visitors can spot blue herons, jumping fish and the occasional juvenile bald eagle. And kayakers like Lorain native Robb Koscho.

Koscho started kayaking here a few years ago. But there was a time when he wouldn’t go near the river, repelled by the smell and the reports of tumor-covered fish and the oily sheen on the surface.

“But it was also different things going on back then. The area we're sitting at right now would have freighters tied off, three deep, and six nose to tail," says Koscho.

A little ways upstream, the Black River inches past remnants of those different times: mountains of slag, a waste byproduct from the steel manufacturing process, piled as high as 60 feet above the river. When the city took over this land ten years ago, the piles of slag reached all the way into the water.

“What we were trying to do is take it back to what it once was, so remove all of the byproduct material so they can function more like a natural environment," says Kate Hoffman, storm water manager for the City of Lorain.

Part of the clean-up has included planting trees along the river banks to provide stabilization and attract birds.

“We're also providing a location for that water that is surfacing and pushing its way out to be treated in. So it discharges into these areas before it heads out into the river, so it is receiving some treatment from the native vegetation," says Lorain.

Native vegetation – particularly trees -- play a big role in cleaning water.  

“The more forest you have within the watershed, particularly upstream, the cleaner the water tends to come out cleaner as the water percolates not only through the forest, but also through the soils, before it gets to the streams," says Dave Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service.

Jim Bissell is hiking though a never-been-cut forest along the Grand River in Ashtabula County. He’s a botanist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History which owns 7400 acres of preserved land in Northeast Ohio. Bissell says the fact the Grand River is surrounded by forest makes it among the cleanest in Ohio and a habitat for rare fish.

“We have over 200 eastern sand darters, this is the only place they’re left. They used to be on the Islands in Western Lake Erie. They used to be in the Black River. They used to be in Rocky River. They’re gone because of the water quality loss. The more we can bring Cleveland back to something like this, the cleaner all our streams and Lake Erie will become. The goal should be every city along Lake Erie to plant more trees to clean more water," says Bisell.

The Ohio Division of Forestry currently has grant money available to help cities within the Black River Watershed plant more trees.

Meanwhile, industrial waste removal continues on the Black River with help from a $15 million grant from the U.S. E.P.A. And earlier this year, volunteers, spearheaded by the local kayakers, say they removed 18 tons of debris.

This story is part of the continuing Be Well series “Healthy People, Health Places” … exploring the intersection of people, place and health. You can access all the reports at http://www.ideastream.org/topics/health

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.