Celebrating the Cuyahoga: From River Fires to Recovery

Just 45 years ago, our nation's waterways were, in some cases, toxic. Since then, there's been a river revival.
Celebrating the Cuyahoga: From River Fires to Recovery
The 1952 fire on the Cuyahoga River caused more than $1 million in damages. No known images exist from the 1969 fire. Credit: Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

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Last weekend, as families across the nation enjoyed boating, water skiing, swimming and all matter of water-related summer fun, a clean-water anniversary slipped silently by. Just 45 years ago, our nation’s waterways were, in some cases, toxic. Toxic enough to burn. Toxic enough so that, as Time magazine wrote in a 1969 article, a person who fell in would “not drown but decay.”

Rivers were industrial dumping grounds, full of oil and chemical slicks that resulted in damaging fires, some causing millions of dollars of damage. The Cuyahoga River was the most polluted of all, and in 1969, when it caught fire — for the 13th time — Time magazine and other media outlets grabbed the story and launched a revolution.

At that point, the Cuyahoga River was considered dead, devoid of fish. A 1968 Kent State University symposium described one section of the river:

“The surface is covered with the brown oily film observed upstream as far as the Southerly Plant effluent. In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Anaerobic action is common as the dissolved oxygen is seldom above a fraction of a part per million. The discharge of cooling water increases the temperature by 10 degrees F. The velocity is negligible, and sludge accumulates on the bottom. Animal life does not exist.”

But the Cuyahoga, which became a symbol of environmental emergency, was not the only river in this position. The Chicago and Buffalo rivers in Illinois and the Rouge River in Michigan also caught fire multiple times. Polluted rivers were a sign of industrial dominance and success. And topping off the toxic cocktail was sewage … lots of it, flowing directly into the rivers untreated.

But after that 13th fire on the Cuyahoga, things began to change. Congress created the EPA and passed the 1972 Clean Water Act. We began a big tidy-up of our water resources.

Flash forward 45 years.

Although still considered “in recovery,” the Cuyahoga is populated with fish. And not just any fish, but fish such as steelhead and northern pike that are considered sensitive to harmful waters. In 2006, after a 70-year absence, nesting eagles returned to the river, where they’ve built a nest every year since. And Lake Erie, which receives the Cuyahoga’s flow and was also considered dead, is now one of the world’s top walleye fisheries.

Fans of history know that 45 years is but a small drop in the bucket of time. The revival of our rivers and lakes in such a short time is a testament to public awareness, responsible government and the hard work and ingenuity of our water and wastewater industries.

This anniversary of a river fire is so much more than that: It’s an anniversary of modern-era wastewater treatment and a tribute to the professionals who make it happen. And to that, we say, “Thank you.”


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