The “Mistake on the Lake’ Cleans Up Its River

Industrial Water Pours Out of a Factory on the Cuyahoga River
Industrial Water Pours Out of a Factory on the Cuyahoga River
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After the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, Cleveland became the butt of jokes around the country - the Burning River, the mistake on the lake. But many people believe the fire helped bring much needed attention to the issue of water pollution. Just a few years later, Congress passed what would become the Clean Water Act, which created tools to crack down on industrial polluters. Industry would now be required to treat its own wastewater before dumping it back into the rivers. That same year, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District was formed. Its job was, in part, to police industry, as well as clean up other waste in the Cuyahoga River. The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant continues her look at the river’s journey.

We’re at the Southerly Wastewater Treatment Center, a 15 minute drive south from Cleveland. Two hundred thousand gallons of water pound over a low, wide cement waterfall - discharging into the Cuyahoga River from here today.  

“That’s a lot of water. But this has received full treatment.”

Frank Greenland is director of watershed programs with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. This waterfall, at the end of the treatment process, runs clear. Greenland takes me to the beginning, when water first runs into the plant from the sewer.

JG: Whew. Ok, you can smell it.

FG: This is the real thing.

Sewage comes into the plant high overhead on a conveyer belt, and it’s squished through filters. Toilet paper, leaves, and other unmentionables drop out…

FG: This is our bread and butter.

JG: I do not want that bread or butter.

JG: This is mostly from people’s houses and things, this is not necessarily from industry?

FG: It’s from whoever is flushing the toilet. And we have a large combined sewer area. So whatever washes off the streets, can and will get into combined sewers, so the litter on our streets. Plastic bottle and junk.

The water then goes through a series of waste settling tanks, it’s aerated and further filtered, until it’s clean enough to head over that waterfall back into the river.

But when it rains the sewers  can get too full, and overflow, instead of heading to a treatment plant. Raw sewage dumps directly into the river.

Greenland says when the sewer district was formed in the early 70s, about 9 billion gallons of raw-untreated sewage were being dumped in the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie each year. But with the federal monies that flowed in in the wake of the Clean Water Act, as well as increases in fees to ratepayers, there have been massive upgrades to sewer pipes and treatment plants like this. He says they’ve cut sewage overflows in half to 4 and a half billion gallons annually.

That’s still a lot of raw sewage. But the   reductions have made a big difference.

It’s an overcast weekday morning, and in the midst of old industrial buildings, in Cleveland’s downtown flats, a mile from where the Cuyahoga meets Lake Erie, people are watching birds. A large freighter slowly navigates a curve in the river, while Chris and Chad Saladin stand along a new hike and bike path watching a pair of peregrine falcons that have nested under a bridge…

“There she goes…”

 Nearby, workers are getting ready for the day at a new restaurant owned by Metroparks Cleveland. From the large wooden deck, a team is rowing past on long thin boats.

In the 60s, the Flats used to be sooty and industrial, the water was an oozing, black muck. People didn’t want to live here. According to some stories, hotels were built with no windows facing the river or Lake.

“We used to say you know it’s Cleveland, if you live here you’ve got to be tough. Well not anymore.”

Jane Goodman graduated high school in the Cleveland area in 1969, the year the Cuyahoga River burned. She got turned onto the environmental movement on the original Earth Day in 1970.

“In those days we were all about fixing the world, fixing the planet.”

Today, she leads a non-profit called Cuyahoga River Restoration. it’s her job to get the Cuyahoga  taken off a list of polluted places. Half of the Cuyahoga River - the part that flows from Akron north through Cleveland to Lake Erie - is designated an Area of Concern by the U.S. and Canada. One reason - the lack healthy aquatic life.

“When this started in 1988, the fish that were counted, captured, counted, there were two fish in that whole system. Not two species, two fish. Pollution tolerant species, you know, carp. Now you can find 43 species, and hundreds, hundreds upon hundreds of fish”

And she says they’re not laden with pollution.

“You can eat the fish in the Cuyahoga River.”

Some historians credit the environmental bounceback to loss of industry of Cleveland and other cities. Steel mills and other factories closed down. And what may have been bad for the economy and jobs, was good for fish and birds.

But environmentalists in this region credit the Clean Water Act - the regulations and money it brought in. But they say there’s more to do.

Andrea Irland  of the National Park Service is creating a water trail along the entire 100 miles of the Cuyahoga. Even she worries about falling out of her canoe into the Cuyahoga.

“Yes, yes I do…”

She remembers a slight panic one time...

“As soon as I remembered that A) I knew how to swim, and B) I could touch my feet on the ground, and the water quality was really good that day, because the water was low - I was fine.”

River advocate Jane Goodman says people should be careful to stay out of the water around sewage pipes after a rain. But otherwise, she says…

“...come, play, have fun. Fall in. Just get out quickly and don’t swallow.”

Like many urban areas, Northeast Ohio is working with the EPA to reduce sewage overflows.

In the meantime, many Clevelanders have embraced the jokes about their gritty industrial past, and the historic fire - they get a lot of play from things like Burning River Pale Ale, Burning River Guitars, and Burning River Roller Derby.  

To Learn More About the Cuyahoga River and The Allegheny Front, CLICK HERE

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