Almost 50 Years After Cuyahoga Burned, Ohio EPA Sees A River Thriving

Oct 3, 2017

The sun sparkles on the Cuyahoga River as it flows through the city of Munroe Falls, just upstream from Akron. The atmosphere is idyllic, apart from the occasional gunshot from a nearby police firing range.

The Cuyahoga River was once the symbol of America’s neglect of its natural resources. But the river that once burned has now bounced back and continues to improve.

Signs Of Life

A team of scientists from the Ohio EPA are dipping nets into the fast moving water looking for aquatic insects.

EPA intern Owen Miller examines his initial haul – some water beetles and a worm-like crane fly larva. He's hoping the next pass will include some other bugs.

“Mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies,” Miller says. “They give us the best general idea of what water quality is like based on how tolerant or intolerant they are.”

His boss, Angela Dripps, is head of the biological sampling section of the Ohio EPA. She says a detailed look at the relative abundance and variety of bugs is the best way to determine the health of a river.

Ohio EPA intern Owen Miller is part of the team assessing the biological health of the Cuyahoga River in Munroe Falls and other locations.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

“There are different pollution tolerances even within one particular group of insects, so just saying there’re mayflies here is a good thing, but now we can really see how good,” Dripps says. “If we see four or five different species of mayflies that’s a more positive thing than just seeing a bunch of the same kind.”

Dripps says Ohio was the first state to use surveys of aquatic insects as part of the formal assessment of water quality.

“Not only were we the first, we’ve been doing it a lot longer than anybody, so we have one of the largest databases of its kind in the world of aquatic biological data,” she says.

She says the detailed data on bugs and other invertebrates allow scientists to "compare what’s been happening historically in rivers and streams in Ohio and see how things have changed over time.”

Drew Phillips, front, uses an electroshock net to capture fish in the Cuyahoga along with interns Jordan Jenkins (left) and Hailey Tiarks (right).
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

Cuyahoga Fish Bounce Back

Part of the biological assessment includes finding out what fish live here.

The team uses an electrified net powered by a floating generator to shock fish and scoop them into a bucket.

We see bass, bluegill, perch, and minnows, plus redfin pickerel, greenside darter and others that are only found in clean flowing streams – 19 species in all.

That’s double the number found here when a dam blocked the river.

Bill Zawiski, head of the region’s surface water division at the state EPA, says the removal of the Munroe Falls dam in 2006 transformed this section from a stagnant pool to one of the state’s healthiest streams.

“Within a few years after upstream here actually exceeded our expectations and met what we called exceptional, so it became ecologically on par with the Grand River and the Chagrin River,” Zawiski says.

Bill Zawiski is head of the region's surface water division. He says the comprehensive survey of the Cuyahoga River will be presented in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 fire on the water.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

He saw the same improvements after the river was diverted around the Kent dam in 2004, and the recent removal of dams in downtown Cuyahoga Falls.

It’s a far cry from where the river was 50 years ago.

Legacy Of The Burning River

In the late 1960s, news reports warned against this area: “The Cuyahoga River in Ohio is so loaded with the waste products of petroleum distillation that it is actually in danger of catching fire.”

And that's exactly what happened in June of 1969. Oil-soaked debris lodged under a railroad trestle burst into flame, burning the bridge and spreading fire along the length of the lower Cuyahoga.

Studies dating back to the 1950s showed a river chocked by raw sewage, acids and industrial chemicals, devoid of life for much of its length between Akron and Cleveland.

Angela Dripps is head of the biological assessment section of the Ohio EPA.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

But Ohio EPA director Craig Butler says the burning river caught the attention of the nation.

“Shortly after that Congress actually passed something, The Clean Water Act, bipartisan… almost unheard of today,” Butler says.

He says the next goal is removal of the massive concrete dam downstream at Gorge Metro Park.

Preliminary plans for removal of the dam and the tons of sediment behind it have been released, but Butler would not commit to a timeframe for the project.

“I see it on the horizon," he says. “In my lifetime, either as director or not, we will see the Cuyahoga River free-flow again and the Gorge dam will be gone.”

Butler says the $65 million removal project has support from the U.S. EPA, despite ongoing changes in the agency in the new administration.

Craig Butler is director of the Ohio EPA. He says removal of the Gorge dam is on the horizon, but cannot say how far that horizon extends.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

Meanwhile, Dripps sees people using the river today in ways unimaginable to previous generations.

“Everybody’s out kayaking, there’re bike trails all over,” Dripps says. “Healthy rivers and streams support that kind of lifestyle.”

The 2017 assessment of biological data from the Cuyahoga River will be presented in a detailed report issued in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the year the river caught fire and sparked the modern environmental movement.