June 22nd will mark the 40 year anniversary of the famous 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River. A picture of the fire in Time magazine was credited with bringing national focus to water pollution in the United States. Here is a quote from a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer Article on the notorious fire:
"The fire did contribute a huge amount to the new environmental movement and it put the issue in front of everyone else, too," said Jonathan Adler, environmental historian and law professor at Case Western Reserve University. "Water pollution became a tangible, vivid thing — like it had never been on a national level. "There was a sense of crisis at that point. It was: Oh, my God — rivers are catching on fire.’ "
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act whose stated goal is to make waterways across the country "fishable and swimmable." Forty years ago, achieving the goal of the Clean Water Act seemed impossible for rivers like the Cuyahoga.
The River was virtually dead from the release of industrial wastes and untreated sewage along with intensive urban and industrial development. I remember talking with some of the original employees of the Ohio EPA who described the rivers like the Cuyahgoa and the Mahoning were virtually boiling from steel mills and other industrial sources that did not cool their water prior to discharging into the River.
Flash forward to 2009, we are about to celebrate the anniversary of the fire by marking a significant achievement in its recovery. The Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan along with Ohio EPA has submitted a request U.S. EPA to take official action by removing most of the river from list of the most polluted rivers in the Great Lakes (delisting request). As the Chairman of the Cuyahoga RAP, I was lucky enough to sign the letter submitting the official request to U.S. EPA.
The area of recovery stretches from Akron to 50 miles down the River to its navigation channel. A once dead River is now teaming with life. The River so notorious for its fire is now become a favorite for steelhead fly fishing.
Perhaps no aspect of the recovery tells the story better then the return of fish to the River. The chart to the left is part of the delisting request to U.S. EPA. It is a compilation of years of data collection from the River. The horizontal axis is the miles of the River. The vertical axis is the number of fish species.
1969 is represented by the nearly flat purple line across the bottom indicatng virtually no life in the River except for its upper most reaches. The green line across the top is 2008 which shows between 15 to 25 species living in the River. (The dip in the green line is the Route 83 dam which shows how dams can have dramatic impacts on water quality)
What an amazing recovery. From dead in 1969 to a River that has a wide variety of species and healthy fish in 2008. Here are some more details on the return of fish to the River:
- In 1984 the relative number of fish caught per kilometer was 53. In 2008 the relative number was 657 fish per kilometer.
- Total species in 1984 was 28, compared to 43 in 2008 with ¼ fewer sites.
- In 1984 there was only 1 individual of a sensitive species. In 2008 there were 10 sensitive species comprising 1412 individuals (31% of the total catch).
- In 1984 there were only 8 bass caught. In 2008 there were 221 bass caught, with the dominant species being Smallmouth Basin.
- In 1984 there was only 1 darter individual collected. In 2008 there were 5 species of darters (228 individuals).
- In 1984 there were no redhorse species (sensitive) in the entire reach. In 2008 there were 3 species (96 individuals).
What are the reasons behind the miraculous recovery of the Crooked River? It took a combination of major investment, successful environmental regulation and protecting the sensitive corridors along its banks.
- Major investment by private industry and municipal wastewater treatment facilities- the North East Ohio Regional Sewer District and Akron’s wastewater system have invested billions of dollar upgrading treatment. Industry along the river has invested millions in new treatment wastewater treatment technology and improved business practices.
- Environmental regulation- Often maligned, the recovery demonstrates that regulation can be effective. The Clean Water Act brought permits to all the major discharges to the River. Overtime, as technology improved, the permits ratcheted down how much pollution dischargers could put into the river.
- The Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Cleveland Metroparks- Maintaining natural vegetation along the banks of rivers and streams has major benefits to water quality. This vegetation operates as filters-absorbing non-point pollution before it can impact waterways. It also provide habitat for important bugs and critters that breathe life into streams. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects 33,000 acres along the banks of the Cuyahoga River. The park system operates as a massive riparian corridor along the River.
Local news coverage of the remarkable comeback of the burning River has been good. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a series dedicated to the Year of the River. But this deserves to be a national story. So often the Midwest and Cleveland seem to be the epicenter of bad news- from a down economy to the housing crisis. Don’t get me started on the sports teams.
What once brought Cleveland into the national spotlight for all the wrong reason should now bring attention for the rights ones. How great would it be to see Time Magazine revisit the River forty years later! Maybe with a picture of some fly fishing on the River. Another reason to highlight the recovery nationally, the Obama Administration has requested $475 million in funding for the Great Lakes. What a better poster child for showing investment in the Great Lakes can work than the Cuyahoga.
If you want to do your part to help the river, you can purchase t-shirts and mugs embossed with the four fish graphic at the beginning of this post. Money raised will be used to support on-going efforts to restore the River. If you happen to be in the Cleveland area come down to the River on the 22nd and celebrate this amazing story or re-birth. You can get details form of the events planned from the Cuyahoga RAP’s website.