The Cuyahoga:
Our crooked river
of city and country

The Cuyahoga
has been called one of the smallest, important rivers in North America. It's only 100 crooked miles long. It drains just 813 square miles of Northeast Ohio. And along much of the river's course it's barely deep enough to float a canoe.

But because of the river's strategic location, it has helped give birth to great industries and the cities of Cleveland and Akron. Today about 1.6 million people live in the watershed.

The Cuyahoga's location is strategic in large part because it runs near another river that connects to the Muskingum River, the Ohio River and hence the Gulf of Mexico. It is just a short portage between the southern bend of the Cuyahoga and the headwaters of the Tuscawaras River in Summit County. This is the route followed by the Ohio & Erie Canal, the transportation route that linked Lake Erie to the Ohio River and first opened up Ohio to commerce.

The logic of this route was realized early in American exploitation of the Ohio territory. As George Washington wrote in 1784, "It has always been my opinion that the shortest, easiest and least expensive communication with the invaluable back country would be [to] let the courses and distances be taken to the mouth of the Muskingum and up that river to the carrying place to the Cuyahoga, down the Cuyahoga to Lake Erie."

Split personality

The Cuyahoga also has been called a schizoid river because of the dramatic differences between its upper and lower stretches. Of course, nearly everyone's image of the river is colored by the infamous fire in 1969. The image is that of an industrial cesspool. And, starting in the mid-1800s, that's exactly what it became downstream of Akron and Cleveland. Fires were not unusual on the oil-slicked waters. But that one fire became an international symbol of environmental degradationa rallying cry for the modern environmental movement.

Upstream, however, is a different world. The headwaters of the river in Geauga County have remained remarkably pristine. Members of the Friends of the Crooked River recently canoed the Upper Cuyahoga, and this is how they described its wonders:

"Less than 15 miles from Lake Erie, only 30 miles from downtown Cleveland, a vast wilderness enfolds the great mother sponge of Geauga County. Barely out of whiff of big city smog, the air is delicious with the abundant decay of nature's wetland food basket. Thin, shallow streams roam slowly through the remnants of glacial leavings and leak into the crystal clean chases of water in the Upper Cuyahoga&. Except for the dozen or so houses which we passed, substantial development took the form of beaver lodges, goose nests and mink latrines. It is a place of rarenesstamarack trees, greater yellow legs, northern leopard frogs."

Water quality challenges

Today, the lower half of the river is no longer the incendiary sewer of the dark days before the Clean Water Act. Thanks to wastewater treatment improvements by industry and municipalities, the river meets nearly all chemical water quality standards and entertainment spots and bike trails hug its banks.

It still is far from healthy, however. Here is a summary of some of the river's lingering problems, based on findings of the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan:

Toxics. As an indicator of toxin levels in a water body, scientists often look at how much of certain chemicals have accumulated in fish. In the Cuyahoga, fish caught in the river below the Ohio Edison dam in Akron have detectable levels of PCBs. In response, health authorities recommend restricting consumption of certain species of fish-white sucker, carp, and bullhead. Although PCBs are not at detectable levels in river water, they can be found in the air, soil, and sediments. Potential sources in the watershed include old industrial areas, hazardous waste sites, leaking landfills, and old electrical transformers (before being banned, PCBs were commonly used as coolants and insulating oils in electrical equipment). In addition, more research is being done to estimate the amount of toxic chemicals entering the water from the air.

Fish tumors. A healthy diversity of fish populations is not found in the river below the Ohio Edison dam in Akron. Furthermore, there is an unacceptably high rate of internal tumors and external problems in fish populations in places along the river and nearshore areas of Lake Erie. This may be a sign of lingering contamination, as well as the stresses of poor habitat and low dissolved oxygen levels. One possible cause of fish tumors is exposure to coal tars from coke plants.

Although LTV Steel's coking operations shut down a few years ago, contamination may linger in sediments on the river bottom. This problem would probably be a lot worse if the lower river weren't dredged annually. The river's polluted sediments are contained in diked disposal facilities along the Cleveland lakefront. (The facility currently in use is Dike 14, which extends into the lake from Gordon Park. When that facility is filled in a year or so, it will be turned into park land. The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a new disposal facility along the northern edge of Burke Lakefront Airport.)

Bacteria. For several days after storms, bacteria levels in the river from Akron to the Cleveland lakefront are likely to exceed the criteria for recreational uses which involve water contact (a polite way of saying that raw sewage overflows into the river during heavy rains and makes it unsafe to swim). Much of the sewage comes from overflows of combined sewers (old sewers that carry sanitary wastes and stormwater in the same pipe). There are about 150 combined sewer overflow (CSO) locations in the watershed between Cuyahoga Falls and the mouth of the river. Other sources of bacteria include sanitary sewer cross connections, street runoff polluted with animal wastes, and failing home sewage systems. In response, sewer districts are working to curtail CSOs, and county health departments are beefing up inspection of home sewer systems.

Aquatic diversity. The populations of other aquatic organisms-macroinvertebrates, phytoplankton and zooplankton-are reduced in many areas, especially in the navigation channel (the lower six miles of the river which is dredged for shipping).

Habitat. Wildlife habitat has been reduced in areas of the river, especially along the bulkheaded navigation channel, and along Cleveland's lakefront. In addition to building and erosion control projects, which destroy vegetation along the riverbank, development has obliterated floodplain wetlands, and dams continue to block fish migration. Another habitat concern is the physical configuration of the navigation channel in the Flats. This dredged shipping channel is a stagnant pool of oxygendepleted water much of the year, and it acts as a barrier to migrating fish.

In response to these problems, local groups are studying how to add oxygen to the river (see below), restoring streambanks with vegetation, inventorying wetlands and critical habitats, and discussing the possibility of modifying the SR 82 dam. In the upper watershed, the Geauga County and Portage County Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Headwaters Land Trust have received state funds to protect the river corridor by purchasing property and conservation easements.

Altered flow. Development increases the amount of impervious surfaces (roads, parking lots, rooftops) in the watershed, so rain washes off quickly instead of soaking into the ground. This creates storm surges in the river, which increase erosion, scouring of the streambed, and polluted urban runoff. The flow of the river is also greatly influenced by the major water treatment plants. In low-flow conditions, more than half of the river's flow is effluent from the Akron and Southerly treatment plants. Thus, the Cuyahoga is considered an "effluent-dominated" river.

Trash. The aesthetic quality of the river and Cleveland lakefront area is degraded by floating debris, public and private littering, visible outfall pipes and discolored water. In response, the Cleveland Waterfront Coalition is studying the feasibility of employing a debris harvesting boat, the Friends of the Crooked River and other groups have organized litter clean-ups, and proposals have been made to step up enforcement of illegal dumping laws. In addition, landfills along the river and its tributaries, such as two along Mill Creek, are being stabilized so trash does not wash into the river.


Since 1988, a community planning committee called the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan (RAP) has been figuring out how to solve the problems listed above. The RAP is part of a U.S.-Canadian program to clean up the 43 most polluted areas around the Great Lakes. Ohio has four of these areasthe Cuyahoga, Black, Ashtabula and Maumee rivers. Each RAP is supposed to devise a comprehensive cleanup plan that involves the public and employs an ecosystem approach that takes into account all sources of pollution.

In recent years, the Cuyahoga RAP has compiled an exhaustive summary of pollution and habitat problems. It also coordinates research and works with other river stewardship groups on public education programs, river cleanup days, storm drain stenciling projects, streambank restoration and erosion control projects, and tours of the river.

In 1996, RAP projects also included:

Navigation channel reaeration study. One of the biggest water quality problems remaining on the river is the lack of dissolved oxygen in the navigation channel. Ohio EPA is requiring that oxygen levels be improved to allow fish to pass through the channel. The RAP has been a partner in a study to evaluate the feasibility of adding oxygen to the river (possibly by pumping air into the water or by creating artificial waterfalls) and the likelihood that doing so will improve conditions for aquatic life.

Urban stream stewardship. This project had focused on municipalities and neighborhoods with stream systems feeding into the Cuyahoga. It has supported activities to improve conditions along Big Creek in Cuyahoga County and is proceeding with Yellow Creek in Summit County.

Future questions

Recent studies of the river by Ohio EPA have sought to answer a number of other questions about the river:

  • What will be the impacts of expanding the Burton wastewater treatment plant in the river's headwaters area?
  • How will a proposed expansion of the Ravenna Wastewater Treatment Plant affect Breakneck Creek?
  • How are the Kent and Summit County Fish Creek wastewater treatment plants affecting the river?
  • How will increased development brought on by the new U.S. 422 freeway affect future water quality of the Upper Cuyahoga? (The agency is expecting a surge of discharge permit applications in the coming years.)
  • How are Akron's reservoirs, such as La Due and Lake Rockwell, affecting water flow and water quality?
  • Are the two big wastewater treatment plants on the riverAkron and the Southerly plant of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer Districtperforming as they should?
  • Are habitat losses bad enough in Akron tributaries, such as the Little Cuyahoga, to warrant lower water quality standards?
  • Are there any new problems on major tributaries, such as Mill Creek and Big Creek?

Restoring the watershed

The challenges facing the river today are more complex and challenging than those of 20 years ago. With some expensive engineering fixes, we've gone a long way towards cleaning up the river. But to really restore it to health, we will need to do much more.

In addition to dealing with 148 permitted industrial sources and 72 treatment plant dischargers in the watershed, we will have to deal with diffuse sources of urban runoff, degraded habitat, and air deposition from hundreds of miles away. At the community level we will need to deal with people dumping motor oil down storm sewers, dousing their yards with lawn chemicals, and neglecting to maintain their septic tanks. We will need to do a million things differently every day.

And we will need to protect the good parts of the river. The Upper Cuyahoga and some of the high quality tributaries like Furnace Run are precious refuges of native fish and plantsbiological diversity that will spread to the rest of the river system as it recovers from pollution. But these high quality areas are threatened by intense development pressures. They may not last.

We once had a river that was very bad and very good. If we can't preserve the good parts, we may end up with a river that can only be mediocre.


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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2004

Steven Litt's State of The River address
Cuyahoga TMDL planning
Cuyahoga River resources
Cuyahoga River facts
Cuyahoga River watershed map
Moon over the Cuyahoga

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The Great Lakes Industrial History Center at Cleveland State University has created an online exhibition of historic photographs of the Cuyahoga River.


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