Cuyahoga River Essay

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The Cuyahoga River runs north for 100 miles in northeastern Ohio before emptying into Lake Erie. The river flows through areas of heavy industry and high population densities, especially in its last 40 miles. The negative effects of industrial wastes spilled into the river have been devastating. The river surface was literally set aflame in 1936 when sparks from a blow torch set fire to oils and material on the surface. Although the incident was widely noted at the time, remedial action to any significant degree was negligible. In 1952, boats on the river and an office building were also set aflame. Further destruction occurred in the 1960s as the river continued to serve as a refuse dump for industrial wastes, flammable oils and other liquids, and sewage overflow. Pollutants from the Cuyahoga and other rivers feeding into Lake Erie were largely responsible for that Great Lake during that time to be declared dead.

In 1969, another fire on the Cuyahoga was noted nationally. This time, a groundswell of public outrage against environmental degradation resulted in a host of legislative actions aimed at reversing the destructive trends. One of the major pieces of legislation to be enacted was the Clean Water Act, which grew out of the 1977 amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972. The Clear Water Act set the goals for regulating the discharge of all forms of pollutants into the rivers and lakes in the United States. In addition, the act authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to set wastewater standards for industry and municipalities. The Clean Water Act set in motion the mechanisms for the creation of other laws aimed at stopping environmental degradation. Of greatest pertinence to the Cuyahoga River was the enactment of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972 and its renewal in 1978, which brought together the governments of the United States and Canada to work together to reduce the deposits of pollutants into the Great Lakes. The general aim of the agreement is to commit each country to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. At the time of its enactment, many in the scientific community had grave doubts in particular about the prospects for Lake Erie, which for years had lost virtually all of its fish and plant species to the ravages of pollution. Fortunately, the lake did make a remarkable turnaround and is now considered to be in a generally healthy state.

The improved health of Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes could not have been accomplished without considerable remediation in the condition of the rivers that feed into them. In 1988, the lower 45-mile course of the Cuyahoga River was designated as one of 43 Areas of Concern around the Great Lakes. With this designation, the Cuyahoga is covered by a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) created to guide local officials in implementing effective anti-pollution measures. The RAP aims at restoring and protecting 14 specific beneficial uses for the river, uses that had been lost due to damage by pollution. The uses include a number of particular points regarding fish and animal life, restrictions on dredging, control of algae, improvement of drinking water sources, safety of public beaches, and improvements in the conditions of both industry and agriculture along the course of the river.


  1. David Beach, The Greater Cleveland Environmental Book (Orange Blossom Press, 1998);
  2. William Donohue Ellis, The Cuyahoga (Landfill Press , 1998);
  3. Peter Schultze, ed., Measures of Environmental Performance and Ecosystem Condition (National Academy of Engineering, 1999).

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