Black River:
Reclaiming the Canesadooharie

There is a placeBlack River west branch falls in Elyria
in Elyria that ought to be considered sacred ground. It's in the middle of the city and is somewhat hard to find. Yet it is the natural focal point of Lorain County watersheds.

It's the spot where the East and West branches of the Black River flow together after tumbling over the two most dramatic waterfalls in the region. As you stand at this confluence and watch the waters mix (the West Branch is usually muddier because it drains more agricultural land), you can feel the powerful, spiritual force of the place.

In recent years, citizen groups such as the Friends of the Black River and Seventh Generation have worked to raise public awareness of this Two Falls area of Elyria's Cascade Park. They have cleaned up tons of trash, improved hiking trails, and planted trees. And they are reintroducing people to the river's Native American nameCanesadooharie.

Such efforts are part of a renewed appreciation of the Black River in Lorain County.

"We heard at one point that the public was apathetic and didn't care about the river," says the Friends' Cheryl Wolfe. "But now we're giving something back. The healing has begun."

Among other river-related activities, the Friends have organized volunteers to monitor water quality. The Lorain County Metro Parks has greatly expanded its Black River Reservation to protect more of the river corridor. And the Black River Remedial Action Plan (RAP) has brought together government agencies, business and citizens to study the watershed and devise a comprehensive cleanup plan.

The Black River RAP is part of a U.S.-Canadian effort to clean up the 43 worst toxic hotspots around the Great Lakes. In Ohio, RAPs are also underway for the Cuyahoga, Ashtabula and Maumee rivers.

Just as the Cuyahoga is known as the river that burned, the Black is the river with tumor-laden fish. For years, U.S. Steel in Lorain (now USS/Kobe Steel) discharged poisonous coal tars from its coke plant into the river. Bottom-feeding fish that came in contact with these and other contaminants in the sediment developed extraordinarily high rates of tumors and deformities. As a result, in 1983 the Ohio Department of Health issued a warning not to eat any fish caught in the lower stretch of the river.

In 1990, the steel company dredged out the worst of the contaminated sediments and dumped them in a hazardous waste landfill near the riverbank. Fish tumors increased shortly after the dredging, presumably because the operation temporarily stirred up contaminants. But now tumor levels have declined.

The coke plant is now shut down, along with a number of other big industrial polluters in the watershed. Those that remain have improved water treatment facilities or tied into municipal sewage systems. Municipal wastewater treatment plants in Lorain, Elyria and other cities also have been upgraded. Thus, many of the most obvious toxic threats to the river have been reduced.

Persistent problems

Despite the progress, an intensive study of the river conducted by Ohio EPA and other agencies in 1996 revealed a number of remaining water quality problems:

  • Sediment. The coke plant contamination has been dredged from the lower river, but sediments remain polluted in the river's mainstem (the segment below the confluence of the East and West branches in Elyria), the harbor and French Creek. In these areas, concentrations of heavy metals (such as zinc, cadmium and iron) are considered "highly elevated" or "extremely elevated." Low concentrations of pesticides and toxic hydrocarbons (such as toluene and naphthalene) were also found. Another major concern is the high amount of sediment washing off crop land and construction sites.
  • Pathogens. Unhealthy bacteria levels persist throughout the river's mainstem and at places in the East and West branches and tributary streams. Major sources include sewer overflows, inadequate home sewage systems, and runoff from urban areas and animal feedlots.
  • Macroinvertebrates. Communities of insects and other organisms that live on the bottom of the river have improved in the last 10 years, but a number of river segments still do not meet the warmwater water quality standard set by Ohio EPA. These include the lower mainstem (the estuary area where Lake Erie water mixes with river water), a site on the East Branch below the Grafton wastewater treatment plant, and several miles of the lower West Branch. In addition, a site on French Creek by Abbe Road was significantly degraded compared to 1982 tests, possibly a result of metals contamination from industry or fly ash disposal upstream.
  • Fish communities. While fish communities in the mainstem have improved, the proportion of less desirable, pollution-tolerant fish species is high because of past pollution problems and the removal of vegetation. Fish communities upstream have declined because erosion and agricultural runoff make the water turbid and cover the stream bed with sediment. Eighteen fish species that were present in the basin in the past were not found during a 1992 survey.
  • Habitat. Fish and wildlife habitats are degraded throughout the basin from dredging, shoreline development, stream channelization, excessive sedimentation and dams.
  • Aesthetics. Human litter and cloudy, silt-laden water degrade the appearance of the river throughout the basin.

Members of the RAP are devising strategies to deal with these pollution problems. The goal is to restore the watershed so that it can support healthy communities of fish and other aquatic life, provide habitat for wildlife, as well as meet human needs for safe drinking water, industrial uses and recreation.

"The river is our lifeblood," says Cheryl Wolfe of the Friends.

And a growing number of Lorain County residents agree. They are making the Canesadooharie the heart of their part of the bioregion.



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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

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