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EPA's recognition of improved water quality marks another important milestone for the Cuyahoga River

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Posted at 5:34 PM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-22 19:22:26-04

CLEVELAND — The comeback story five decades in the making for the Cuyahoga River took an important step forward this week as the EPA officially de-listed another one of the river’s beneficial use impairments concerning the negative impact of stormwater runoff. The delisting of the eutrophication impairment — or unwanted algae growth — is yet another sign the water quality of the Crooked River has improved dramatically.

After the famous — or infamous — fires on the Cuyahoga River and the passage of the Clean Water Act, the EPA designated the lower 47 miles of the river as an area of concern, meaning the area had suffered environmental degradation and damage. The area of concern designation led to the creation of the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern Advisory Committee, a consortium of different public and private entities that provide feedback on plans and guidelines in the ongoing efforts to turn the river around.The committee had a brief moment of celebration on Thursday afternoon to acknowledge and removal of the eutrophication impairment.

“Really what it means is that the Cuyahoga River has come a long way since the last time burned in 1969,” said Jennifer Grieser, the director of natural resources for the Cleveland Metroparks. “We’re continuing to make progress. We have a ways to go but the significant investments that have been made have been worthwhile investments.”

Eutrophication is the process in which excess nutrients flow into a body of water due to runoff. This causes a dense growth of unwanted plant life like algae, which can negatively impact animal life due to the lack of oxygen. In layman’s terms, think of it like an all-you-can-eat buffet for algae.

“It’s come an incredibly long way from where it was when it burned 50 some odd years ago,” said Scott Broski, the superintendent of environmental services at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. “We used to see just a few species of fish in the river. Now, we’re at 60 species of fish. It’s been an absolutely miraculous recovery. A lot of that is attributed to the various government agencies, Metroparks and our industrial community. It’s been this coordinated effort with all of these people with an interest in the river coming together to complete good projects that make a difference.”

The eutrophication impairment is the fourth impairment to be removed by the EPA in recent years. Other impairments that have been removed include recreation on the water as well as the consumption of fish caught in the river now being permitted. The advisory committee has six more impairments it is currently working on, although river creation, fish consumption and eutrophication are some of the big ticket items.

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The removal of impairment is the direct result of more than two decades worth of planning and billions of dollars in public money being spent to overhaul the region’s sewer infrastructure. More recently, the work has been the undertaking of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and the City of Akron, which have both made sizable investments in projects related to eliminating combined sewer overflows.

In heavy rain events, stormwater and raw sewage combine and eventually end up being pumped out into Lake Erie. The NEORSD has embarked on multi-billion dollar overhauls of these systems while also guiding municipalities and other organizations in the creation of bioswales, rain gardens and surface lots made of permeable pavers.

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“Their efforts to reduce the negative impacts from combined sewer overflows have reduced a large amount of algae coming out of those CSOs and therefore helped improve water quality,” said Scott Hardy, the extension educator for the Ohio Sea Grant College program. “Eliminating eutrophication makes the river more enjoyable because it takes away a nuisance. Nobody wants to see algae growing on top of the water but it also improves water quality. By addressing this use impairment with eutrophication, not only are we improving the ability for the people of Cleveland to enjoy the water but also the water quality and ecosystem itself.”

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Hardy highlighted the massive public investment that has been made into the river and water quality throughout the region. He said there is simply no comparing the Cuyahoga River of today to the Cuyahoga River of 1969.

“I would say a massive transformation would be understating the effort,” Hardy said. “Whether we’re talking dollars and cents from a community development perspective or simply a quality of life perspective in terms of being able to use the resource, I feel these actions give back to the community in a myriad of ways.”