Water Quality

The Cuyahoga River on a sunny, summer day.
The Cuyahoga River, made famous by its troubled history of industrial pollution and spontaneous fires, lies at the heart of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

© D.J. Reiser

A History of Pollution

The Cuyahoga River winds 100 miles through northeast Ohio. This once pristine waterway drew many people to settle on its banks. Growing communities brought industry from Kent to Cleveland. Companies along the lower river soon began using it as a dumping station for industrial waste. The river quickly fell victim to severe pollution, degrading the water quality and guaranteeing that almost no life could survive in the thick, murky water.

Oily debris floating on the Cuyahoga caught fire at least a dozen times, starting in 1868. This also happened on other industrial rivers in the US and elsewhere. The events that followed the fire of 1969, however, were vastly different from the others. Time 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 sometimes called, became a poster child for the environmental movement. Something had to change. The burning of 1969 and the subsequent media attention helped spur on legislation such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act of the early 1970s. The Cuyahoga River and waterways across the country were on course toward a cleaner future.

A Work in Progress

Today the Cuyahoga River is designated as an American Heritage River because of its role in the environmental movement. The upper 25 miles has excellent water quality and is an Ohio State Scenic River. The lower half is much healthier than it was decades ago, but is still impaired under the Clean Water Act. The section of river from Akron to Cleveland as well as the nearshore of Lake Erie is one of the 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. These pollution hotspots are being cleaned up as part of an agreement between the US and Canada.

The Cuyahoga River Area of Concern partners plan and promote the restoration of beneficial uses. These include fishing and paddling. An advisory committee is working through a list of management actions to fix a list of problems called beneficial use impairments. When the partners have demonstrated that the Cuyahoga is no longer a hotspot, the river will be delisted as an Area of Concern. It won't be perfect, but it will be no worse than other Ohio waterways.

Recreation on the River

The water quality of the Cuyahoga River is a concern for water-based recreation. Of particular concern are 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. Visit our paddling page to learn about recreation on the river.

Great Lakes NowCast

USGS Great Lakes 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 during certain seasons. Visit USGS Great Lakes NowCast 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 National Park Service in making informed decisions about the water quality in the Cuyahoga River. Visitors should still use caution when contacting Cuyahoga River water. While water quality has steadily improved over the past 50 years, contaminant and bacteria levels can still be high, especially after periods of rain.

Visit the regional USGS Water Science Center's website for more information about Ohio's streams, ground water, water quality, and other related topics.


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    Last updated: September 1, 2023

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