The Cuyahoga River is now two steps closer to being eco-friendly

People around the globe seem to know about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire because it was so polluted. Almost 50 years after the last time the river caught on fire, the poor Cuyahoga still gets a bad rap.

But groups of people have been working tirelessly to improve the quality of the Cuyahoga River and get it delisted as an EPA area of concern. Thanks to those groups, today's river is a place where people boat, fish, or just sit on the banks and enjoy the view.

Cuyahoga River Area of Concern (AOC), formerly known as the Remedial Action Plan (RAP), celebrated a victory on Saturday, May 5, by checking two items off a list of 10 Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs) that must be addressed before the river is delisted as one of the most polluted waterways by the Ohio EPA.

The Cuyahoga River earned this designation in 1988, after the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was put in place by the United States and Canada. The two BUIs that have been removed are “degradation of aesthetics” and “lack of public access,” according to Jane Goodman, director of the Cuyahoga River AOC.

The former was removed from the list, as the EPA acknowledges that floating oil, sludge, and smell are no longer an issue. Furthermore, the Port of Cleveland has concentrated on the removal of wood and trash from the river. Although not a part of the aesthetic BUI, the Port keeps the river clear of such debris for the public’s enjoyment.

The latter was removed because there is little doubt today that the river and tributaries are a popular destination for fishing, paddleboarding, rowing, and sculling, along with other activities in and along the river. The Towpath Trail and the addition of fishing access sites also helped accomplish this goal.

Goodman says the removal of the two BUIs is a huge step toward improving the river and its tributaries and a cause for celebration by the many people who have worked to make the Cuyahoga River a clean, sparkling attraction. She cites people rowing on the river with organizations like The Foundry and the Cleveland Rowing Foundation as two examples of the improved public access.

A celebratory party was recently held at waterfront Merwin’s Wharf in the Flats, steps away from the recreational activities now available on the river. “It was as much for the Area of Concern advisory committee people that we thought, 'What the hell, why not invite everyone else?'” Goodman says. “[Up] to 40 people came and watched and helped us celebrate.”

Jennifer Grieser, chair of the Cuyahoga AOC, welcomed the group and gave an update on the river’s status. Kirk Lang, executive director of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, spoke about the recreational access, and Jared Magyar, the Port’s director of facilities and operations, spoke about the improved aesthetics.

“No longer is the Cuyahoga River described as an ‘open sewer running through the city,’ the surface covered with a brown, oily film, sludge accumulating on the bottom, color changing from grey-brown to rusty-brown as the river proceeds downstream,” Grieser told the crowd.

Jim White, who designed and oversaw the building of Flotsam and Jetsam (the debris-cleaning boats for the Port Authority), was also on hand, as were officials from the city, the Cleveland Metroparks, and a variety of other organizations focused on improving the Cuyahoga. “It was just a broad cross-section,” Goodman says.

Goodman says some of the people who happened to be in the area enjoying the river also joined in the celebration. “One of the most rewarding parts of the day was people saying, ‘How can I get involved?’” she recalls. “Those are the magic words.”

Goodman says another “small world” experience she had was running into the Dickson family from South Euclid—her hometown. Their son Blake recently graduated from John Carroll University with an environmental studies major. “Some of the organizations were vying for who gets this kid for the summer,” she laughs. “I kept saying to the National Park [representatives], ‘He’s mine, we get him.’

According to Goodman, the next items on the list to address are the degradations in fish populations and restrictions on fish consumption. Goodman says fish habitat projects are underway and that fish populations are comparable to Lake Erie itself and the surrounding streams. As far as restrictions on consumptions, she says they have worked to reduce contaminants and that the fish caught in the river meet the same standards as other areas.

Goodman says a third item, eutrophication (or undesirable algae) is only a problem in a small portion of the river outside of Mogadore and will be addressed. “Right now, we’re going through what I call a reality check on what the goals are,” she says.

All the efforts have transformed the Cuyahoga River into one of Cleveland’s sources of pride, rather than embarrassment, Goodman says. “It has been monumental in people feeling the river is a wonderful place to be,” she says. “This was a chance to celebrate our accomplishments.”

While the two items being removed from the list was cause for celebration, Goodman stresses that there is a long way to go before the river is delisted. “When all 10 have been reversed, then it gets delisted,” she explains. “Everyone will celebrate the 50th anniversary since the river last caught on fire in 2019, but we’ll still be working at this for years to come.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.