The Cuyahoga River, made famous by its troubled history of industrial pollution and spontaneous fires, lies at the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Visit our Canoeing and Kayaking page to learn about recreation on the river.
The Cuyahoga River, winding 100 miles through northeast Ohio, offered convenience to growing cities, drawing many people to settle the banks of the once pristine waterway. Growing communities brought industry and companies began using the river as a dumping station for wastes produced by factories. The river quickly fell victim to severe pollution, degrading the water quality and guaranteeing that no life could survive in the thick, murky water. In 1969, a passing rail car created a spark that would ignite more than just a fire on the Cuyahoga River. The fire of 1969 sparked an environmental movement. Just one of over a dozen fires on the Cuyahoga River, the 1969 blaze was nothing new. Industrial rivers, much like the Cuyahoga, burned frequently, but it was the preceding events that made the 1969 fire vastly different from the others. Time magazine published an article about the burning of the Cuyahoga River that would prove to be a pivotal turning point in the fate of the heavily polluted waterway. The "Mistake by the Lake," as the city of Cleveland was called, became a poster child for the environmental movement. Something had to change. The burning of 1969, and subsequent popularity, sparked legislation for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act of the early 1970s. The Cuyahoga River, among many others, was on track to cleaner days.
Today, the Cuyahoga River is designated as an American Heritage River, however, the waterway still faces its challenges. Click here to visit the NPS' Rivers website.
Although much healthier than forty years ago, some sections of the river remain on the list of impaired waters as established under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. Portions of the Cuyahoga River Watershed, including the section of river that travels through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, have been classified as one of the 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, necessitating the development of a Remedial Action Plan (RAP).
The Cuyahoga River Area of Concern committee works to plan and promote restoration of beneficial uses, such as fishing and canoeing, of the lower Cuyahoga and near-shore Lake Erie through remediation of existing pollution problems and prevention of future ones. Click here to visit the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern website.
Beneficial use impairments were identified in the Stage One Remedial Action Plan. Stage Two, implementation and restoration of beneficial uses, is only partially completed. Extensive research and monitoring by numerous agencies have been funded to improve understanding of water quality impairments within the watershed. Currently, impairments to the water quality of the Cuyahoga River are being addressed under the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program. A TMDL is a written, quantitative assessment of water quality problems in a water body and contributing sources of pollution. It specifies the amount a pollutant needs to be reduced to meet water quality standards, allocates pollutant load reductions, and provides the basis for taking actions needed to restore a water body. The TMDL for the Cuyahoga River is divided into three sections, the upper, middle, and lower Cuyahoga. The section of the river that flows through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is considered part of the lower Cuyahoga.
The water quality of the Cuyahoga River within the park is of particular concern to park managers due to the high concentrations of Escherichia coli (E. coli), a fecal-indicator bacterium after heavy rain. Park management would like to encourage use of the river when the water quality is within acceptable limits. The river still receives discharges of storm water, combined-sewer overflows, and incompletely disinfected wastewater from urban areas upstream of the park. These discharges result in a threat to the health of visitors who come into contact with river water during recreational use. Because park managers are concerned about the threat posed to human health by sewage and pathogen contamination, the park currently discourages swimming. Kayaking and Canoeing are seen as an acceptable recreation activity.
Ohio Nowcast is a system that uses near real-time information to "nowcast" water-quality conditions on the Cuyahoga River. The Nowcast issues advisories and predicts the concentrations of E. coli once a day. Click here for the most recent water quality prediction.
The park hopes to gain a better understanding of the ability of indicator organisms to predict the presence of human pathogens and, consequently, risks to human health. This information will improve our understanding of waterborne pathogen occurrence and will assist the NPS. in making informed decisions about the water quality in the Cuyahoga River.Visitors should still be warned to use caution when contacting Cuyahoga River water. While water quality has steadily improved over the past 40 years, contaminant and bacteria levels can still be high, especially after periods of rain.
For more information on Cuyahoga water quality and advisories, click here to visit the FAQs page.
Click here to visit the USGS website for a direct link to all kinds of water information. Here you'll find information on Ohio's streams, ground water, water quality, and many other topics.
Last updated: March 26, 2021