In the early part of the 20th century, rivers in industrial cities, laden with raw sewage and oil-soaked debris, would catch fire a lot, and nobody would give them much mind. But when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, attitudes had changed, and “the Mistake by the Lake” sparked environmental reforms across the country.  Within a year, the Environmental Protection Agency would be established and the first Earth Day would be held. Today, 40 years later, Cleveland is celebrating the Cuyahoga’s rebirth, now home to more than 60 species of fish as well as beavers, blue herons and bald eagles.

And most credit an active citizenry up and down the watershed who for 40 years have worked hard to improve the river. A year before the fire, Cleveland residents voted to tax themselves an additional $100 million for river restoration. Local governments removed dams, which trapped pollution and impeded fish migration. In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford created the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, which became a national park in 2000. The park saved miles of the river from suburban development.

Since then, local industries and the Northwest Ohio Regional Sewer District have spent $3.5 billion to reduce sewage and industrial waste pollution. The sewer district built miles of subway-tunnel-size tubes beneath the city. The tubes hold excess rainwater until it can be processed by treatment plants, reducing the number of times that plants become overwhelmed and spew sewage into the river. In the next 30 years, Cleveland-area residents will spend about $5 billion more on the wastewater system.

There is still work to be done, but river specialists agree, so much has been accomplished and the way forward is clear. With essential funding, further habitat restoration work can be done.  To learn more about how cities are dealing with their stormwater runoff, click here.


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