Grass-Roots Groups Working to Clean Up Cuyahoga River

Aug. 27, 2002
As they watched bulldozers rip through pristine wetlands in Bainbridge Township last August, Pat McCarthy and Steve Milano could only shake their heads.

That day, which came after months of fighting a proposed shopping center on Aurora Road, cemented their resolve to protect their environment. They formed the Pond Brook Watershed Initiative.

Without knowing it, this grass-roots group joined a growing web of volunteer guardians protecting the Cuyahoga River and the streams and wetlands that make up its watershed.

From Parma to Hiram, these river-keepers are waging small-scale fights to save wetlands, preserve undeveloped land and change laws that will limit development and control its harmful runoff. They are raising awareness about the Cuyahoga River.

Such activism is not unique to the Cuyahoga. Watershed groups have formed on other Ohio waterways, such as the Chagrin River, Grand River and Doan Brook.

However, as abused as it once was, the 100-mile-long Cuyahoga enjoys unprecedented local support by 14 groups and coalitions.

No other river in Ohio has such a concentration of advocates.

Within the last year, three groups have formed, and more are expected.

"The beauty - in one word, that's why we're doing it," said Laura von Vesterfield, a member of the Little Cuyahoga River Conservancy in Akron. "Somebody has to represent the river. We want the river to be glorified."

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River served as a warning flare to the country's environmental ills when it caught fire. The burning river became a national symbol of the country's water pollution problems. It awakened legislators and galvanized support.

It also grabbed the attention of Edith Chase and Caroline Arnold. Less than a year later, the two Kent women joined others in the area and created the Kent Environmental Council, which is the oldest active advocacy group on the river.

In 1970, the group held its first river cleanup in Kent. More followed.

Their efforts led to the creation of the Franklin Mills River Edge Park along the Cuyahoga in downtown Kent, which opened in 1976.

More than 30 years later, Arnold, Chase and the Kent Environmental Council remain active in Cuyahoga River issues, such as water diversion and water quality problems associated with a dam in downtown Kent.

One of the reasons for the proliferation of grass-roots groups concerned about the river is that people are starting to see erosion, flooding and other long-term effects of urbanization in their back yards, which take time to appear, said Jim White, who heads the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan.

These groups can bridge the gap between local elected officials and the state and federal environmental protection agencies.

The Ohio EPA has no authority over stream bank development, land use and zoning - important local regulations that can help protect and improve water quality and which citizens can push their governments to adopt.

"The more active the public is in a watershed, the more gets done," said state EPA biologist Paul Anderson. "They give a voice on how to deal with issues."

Over the past three decades, major strides have been made to reduce pollution in the Cuyahoga River.

Now the pollution problems are more subtle, diverse and complicated such as rainwater runoff from parking lots, cars, streets, lawns and dozens of other sources that foul the water with a variety of pollutants.

The federal EPA is requiring communities to come up with a five-year plan to clean up stormwater. Plans must meet six minimum control measures, such as identifying sources of pollution and controlling runoff during and after construction.

Sewage contamination remains a major issue with many Cuyahoga advocates, especially from Akron. Water quality is so poor in the river in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park that canoeing and wading are prohibited. Untreated sewage could be coming from faulty and leaking septic tanks in rural areas or from city sewer drains designed to allow sewage to overflow into waterways when it rains.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District expects to spend more than $1 billion over the next 30 years to reduce the amount of untreated pollution released into the river and Lake Erie. Akron expects to spend $377 million on a similar plan.

Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer