On a beautiful sunny summer day, swarms of eager Clevelanders flock to Edgewater park after a long, wet, stormy week. It’s the perfect day for it. Sun is shining, 80 degrees, gorgeous lake breeze, pleasant smell of coconut sunblock, and the smell of dead fish. Wait, dead fish? What’s that about the water? Too toxic to swim?
Too often we forget that every time the rain overwhelms the city sewer and wastewater capacity, there is no choice but for raw sewage to flow right on into Lake Erie. For many years, when Edgewater was known for its smelly water, urban trash, and beaches that required tetanus shots for their hazards, the problem of sewage overflow was not high on the priority list for the city’s citizens. How far we have come in recent years.
There has been a huge amount of clean-up efforts, habitat restoration, trail, and pathway additions—even work on that dreaded sewer situation.
Yet, on this beautiful summer day, I can’t help but think we have put a shiny “green” ribbon on the package that is our far from perfect, not so blue, Lake. Today she was crying out for help.
How many of us heard her from our sandy perches with tropical drinks in hand? How many cyclists stopped to admire the dying waterfowl in Whiskey Island Marina? The bloated carcass of a dead turtle floating among the trash?
This isn't to blame those of us who are finally enjoying the vision of a fully realized lakeside park and trail system. I simply wonder if enough of us demanded a lake clean enough to swim in every day, would it finally be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Because Cleveland has a history with Lake Erie folks, and it isn’t a pretty one.
Let’s take a look back through the sands of time and hear a story of a city on a brown Lake.
Like many other cities along the Great Lakes, industry in Cleveland boomed in the early to late 1800s. The abundance of employment opportunity attracted droves of people from all over the world. You have all heard about the Burning River, documented a total of 13 times, going all the way back to 1868.
Well, that same chemical waste flowed right on into Lake Erie. In fact, many people don’t know that Cleveland’s West and South neighborhoods were once separated by a tributary of the Cuyahoga River called Walworth Run. This stream was so befouled by the 1870s that a group of citizens led by George Howlett petitioned the city to fully enclose the stream and transform it into an underground sewer.
Construction finally commenced in 1897, creating a sewer system capable of diverting sewage from storm water. At the same time, demand for lakefront attractions was high—perhaps too high.
Through a bond process and private donations, Cleveland experienced a boom in land acquisition that left the city with too many lakefront parks and not enough money to take care of them.
Nothing illustrates the dichotomy of Cleveland’s lakefront ambitions-versus-reality more than The Great Lakes Expo held in the 1930s. The Expo aimed to highlight Cleveland as a world class destination. Yet, a mile away, Eliot Ness was hunting for the torso murderer in the shacks and crude housing lining the river, where raw untreated human waste still flowed unchecked into the same Lake spotlighted by the Expo.
Combine this with increasing industry not just in Cleveland, but in Erie, Buffalo, and Canada. When you think about it, it’s amazing anything at all resembling a natural ecosystem managed to survive.
For almost 200 years anyone along the Lake could dump whatever they wanted with impunity. It wasn’t until the 1970s that real action, spurred on by Cleveland’s national coverage, yet another river fire, and aided with the attention then mayor Carl Stokes helped create, finally resulted in the creation of the Clean Water Act and the EPA.
Unfortunately, many of these new regulations were impossible to monitor and maintain by the city in an era of fiscal crisis. Forced to concede, the city signed a lease with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, turning control of the Lakefront parks to the State of Ohio.
We have the expiration of that lease in 2013. and the subsequent takeover by the Cleveland Metroparks to thank for the long-overdue attention to our beloved lakefront parks.
In less than a decade, the Metroparks has managed to restore wetland habitat, create new trails, re-direct stormwater, clean up the beaches, and beautify our lakefronts into places that we want to go to.
Through partnership with the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District (CSWCD), among many other local and national groups, Cleveland is able to celebrate the delisting of the Cuyahoga River as an “Area of Concern” by the EPA. And the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District monitors and controls what goes into our Great Lake.
Now here we return to our present day. Cleveland is better than ever. We finally have a steward of Lake Erie that cares and actively makes a difference. There is more attention to the environmental issues concerning our Lake than there ever was before.
So why do we still have to double check the water quality before heading to the beach to swim? Were you paying attention to that little history lesson earlier? As in the 1800s, we face the same problem with overwhelming the wastewater capacity when a downpour floods the system.
You see, despite all the heroic efforts to clean up Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, we have roofs, roads, pavement, sidewalks blocking the absorption. And we have more of them every day. We have communities with grassy lawns and not enough rain gardens.
It’s what isn’t surrounding the Lake that’s killing it after a thunderstorm. Water that has no place to go in the ground must go down. Down into the sewer, unfortunately. “Ok lady,” you might be thinking, “what’s the point of this whole essay if no matter what, Lake Erie is doomed whenever it rains too much?”
Because it’s not doomed. In fact, Cleveland recently asked us how to spend $511 million in Federal relief funds, and even mentioned wastewater and stormwater infrastructure as a suggestion.
If even a fraction of the city’s concrete or asphalt surfaces were replaced with permeable surfaces, it would be a huge reduction in the amount of water forced into drains. How about offering tax incentives to builders who commit to green infrastructures like sod roofs?
Imagine if there was a city task force that could come out to your property and install a rain barrel, instead of just giving them away to people who don’t have the tools nor the know-how to attach it to their drainpipes?
What if people actually went door to door, not for politics, but to offer assistance and education to residents on the numerous credits available through the regional sewer district?
I mean, I would love to disconnect my storm drain and re-direct it to my yard, but I’m neither a landscaper nor an architect, and I will probably just end up flooding my neighbor’s garage. If Cleveland had the funding to go out and help people, then those people could help people, then those people could go help people—you get the picture.
We the people of Cleveland, have a huge opportunity to shape the future of our city. Lake Erie keeps us alive and drives our economy—the trickledown effect literally impacts every avenue of our society.
I’m confident that if Cleveland leads the way, other communities and cities will follow. After all, it’s not just Clevelanders who flock to the lake, it’s Lakewooders, Parminians, Rocky Riverites, Bay Villagers—lots and lots of people from all over Northeast Ohio and beyond.
For some of us, Lake Erie is the very reason we call our respective communities home. As someone who knows the stormy history of our lakefront development and sees the constant new construction and influx of people flocking to Cleveland, I confidently say that we need to greater protect our Lake and do as much as each and every one of us can to ensure that only rainwater enters our storm drains; as the CSWCD loves to say about our drains, “Lake Erie starts here.”
Let’s take this amazing opportunity from a terrible situation (COVID-19) and show our Lake how much she means to us. Cleveland, you know how I say we use those funds. I’m looking forward to the day we will truly achieve a green city on a blue lake.