Let the River Run

Let the River Run

The Cuyahoga River is vitally important to the economy, ecology, and the way of life for area residents. The river provides local residents with drinking water, wastewater disposal, agriculture, industry, shipping, recreation, and wildlife habitat. It has served as the lifeblood of generations of Northeast Ohioans.

The Cuyahoga River drains 813 square miles of land in portions of six counties in Northeast Ohio. Native Americans referred to the u-shaped river as the Cuyahoga or “crooked river.” The river flows both south and north over its 100 mile course which ends at Lake Erie just 30 miles from its headwaters.

Unfortunately, the Cuyahoga River, like so many rivers in the nations past, was once treated more like a dump than a precious resource to be used and protected.The crooked river became the national poster for polluted waterways, bringing to light the need for better water quality protections in the United States. Fires plagued the Cuyahoga beginning in 1936 when a spark from a blow torch ignited floating debris and oils. Fires erupted on the river several more times before June 22, 1969, when a river fire captured national attention when Time magazine described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than flows”.

This tragic event helped spur an avalanche of pollution control activities resulting in the Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. These were major accomplishments that began to remedy the crooked river’s water quality problems.

In 1985, the International Joint Commission named the lower Cuyahoga River and nearshore areas of Lake Erie as one of 42 Areas of Concern on the Great Lakes. Over the last 20 years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by industry and government to clean up the Cuyahoga River. The Lower Cuyahoga Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Watershed Restoration Plan, which was approved by US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in September 2003, is another positive step towards improving the Cuyahoga River’s water quality. One aspect of the TMDL’s implementation plan is to remove dams throughout the Lower Cuyahoga River. Dam removal can be a successful way to restore more natural hydrology to a river while improving water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation on a river.

Metro Hydroelectric Company LLC (Metro) has filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a preliminary permit to build a hydroelectric project at the Ohio Edison dam on the Cuyahoga River. This permit application has caught the attention and aroused the concerns of area residents, environmentalists including the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) and Friends of the Crooked River (FOCR), recreationalists, Summit County Metro Parks, Ohio EPA, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. And they are not very happy about it.

The OEC and FOCR are opposed to the project because of the negative impacts it could have on the Cuyahoga River. Hydromodification from structures such as dams cause a variety of environmental problems including impacts to water quality of the river, obstructing fish passage, and creating recreational hazards. Removing dams from the Cuyahoga River, in accordance with the Lower Cuyahoga TMDL, offers opportunities for ecological and recreational benefits to the river. Metro’s Project conflicts with the goals of dam evaluation and modification/removal on the Cuyahoga River. It seems that everyone except Metro has taken note that this dam is scheduled for evaluation and possible removal.

What is worse, it seems that this project will negatively impact water quality with little benefit to the public. Along with flying in the face of the Lower Cuyahoga TMDL this proposed project could:

• Reduce flow rates immediately below the dam and, according to recent inquiries by Ohio EPA, create water starved conditions in segments of the river, resulting in lowered dissolved oxygen levels in the river,

• Impact boaters’ ability to access this whitewater section of the river, reducing the use of this section of the river by recreational boaters,

• Increase erosion of the sidewalls of the Cuyahoga River Gorge leading to increased sedimentation of the river and impacting the water quality and habitat of the Cuyahoga River,

• Damage the river’s water quality and prevent fishermen from fishing this portion of the river, and

• Damage the natural aesthetics of the gorge and river at an important focal point for Gorge Metro Park.

Additionally, there is no evidence that Metro’s Project would produce enough electricity to compensate the company for their expenses or the public for the loss of environmental, economic and aesthetic benefits.

Finally, Summit County Metro Parks along with the OEC and FOCR are upset that the public notification process for Metro’s application was inadequate. The public was not notified of the permit application until very late in the process, allowing only two weeks for public comment.

While the fate of this project remains unclear, one thing is certain, there are many parties interested in protecting the Cuyahoga River and stopping this project before more mistakes are made and the crooked river is forced to once again bear the brunt of the cost.There is simply too much riding on this river.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.