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The Return of the Cuyahoga River

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“The Return of the Cuyahoga River”

The Cuyahoga River was the heart of the land and the quality of the river was a direct reflection of how people viewed the quality of their life. The river is 100 miles long and it’s a place where tycoons and legends were made but the wild river was tamed but then poisoned and the environment was destroyed. Oil, debris and pollution accumulated on top of the water. People eventually woke up to the danger and tried to save the river and the world.

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They hoped that they could bring the river back because the water of the river sustains life and they could not change the community until they started with the Cuyahoga River.

Cleveland was a struggling settlement on the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. The mouth was very slow flowing and it actually retarded the city, making it full of swamps and malarial mosquitoes. The people tried to rearrange nature and moved the mouth a half of a mile in order to make more room for ship and barges at the same time that new canals connected Lake Erie to the Ohio River.

This changed a lot in Cleveland. It became a bustling city for trading and for fortunes to be made. Cleveland became the silicon valley of the industrial era. Companies were founded here to make many products. By 1920, the value of goods produced in Cleveland valued 20 million dollars. The industrial explosion that took place in this city was a landmark in cities like Buffalo and Chicago and many other cities. The Cuyahoga River was crooked and narrow and over time, people remodeled the river again and created bridges and dams that held back its flow. Modern success brought growing pains like pollution. Chemicals were left in bags and on docks and ended up in the river. By 1950, industries along the river developed a multitude of products and at the same time that multitude of products needed to be thrown away. John D. Rockefeller was the architect of the oil business and many companies mirrored what he did by putting waterways to use no matter what the consequences. The river became a mode for transportation and disposal of waste. Steel mills were running with pre-WWII technology and the river and the sky turned orange from all of the pollution.

The river water boiled like a cauldron, constantly bubbling like a stew on a stove with all the petroleum and pollution. The city, just like the river, was left for dead. White, middle class people fled the cities and left behind poverty and rage. Race riots broke out in 1966 and 1968 and Cleveland burned. All resources were leaving the city and the blacks fought back by destroying it with fire, because it showed power and they wanted some kind of control. In 1969, the Cuyahoga was the perfect reflection of the ruined state of American cities. Industrial fires happened in many areas due to the collection of industrial wastes and debris. On June 22, 1969, fire trapped oil and paper products created a dam and molten steel transported across the bridge fell into the debris and caused a huge fire on the Cuyahoga. Although the Cuyahoga burned fairly regularly because of all the pollution, this was actually one of the minor fires but it finally began to open people’s eyes.

Carl Stokes, the first elected African American Mayor, came into office of a city that was decaying with environmental problems, polluted water, and air. However, the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga showed Americans that there was indeed a very big problem and it awakened them to the costs of industrial development. People began to have concerns about the effect it was having on the environment. All of this happened just in time to start the “environmental movement,” in which Mayor Stokes played a major role.

To see a fire burning on their own Cuyahoga River was the turning point for the people of Cleveland and many other Americans. It ignited people’s passions for an environmental change. Symbols are very important in politics and the symbol of a burning river is a catalyst for political action and involvement. Cleveland had lost control and when they saw their river burning, the waters of life then became the fires of destruction. After the fire, no one wanted to live around there. Cleveland became known as “the mistake by the lake.” Carl Stokes linked the environmental problems with social issues. Dirty water and polluted air were part of the problem with America’s industrial cities. The 1969 fire fueled his arguments. In Ohio, people started small scale attempts to clean up the Cuyahoga. Stokes even went to Washington and said that they couldn’t do it alone and needed help.

One consequence of the Cuyahoga River fire was greater political pressure for additional federal legislation thus creating the Clean Water Act of 1972, which is when the federal government dramatically increased its role to help maintain water quality. The Clean Water Act was simple and its goal was to make the waters clean enough for people to swim in and fish. The act prohibited dumping hazardous materials into the navigable pathways of the United States. The EPA took charge of the cleanup and the Cuyahoga was the first to come under scrutiny. The Cleveland harbor commission set out to find equipment that actually worked to clean up the waters. A lot of design and experimental equipment were in the works but they were all untested and unknown. Many did not work at all. Frank Samsel was one who took charge, took his own money and converted his boat into a cleaning machine. It had a vacuum tank that could vacuum up heavy fuel oil off the surface of the water. In a 16 hour day, 15-20 thousands of oil was removed along with a great amount of debris. After 6 years, companies stopped dropping waste and the river looked great. The Clean Water Act still conducts tests and surveillance on the water. Ten years after the fire, the job was almost completed.

Some factories cleaned up, others moved away and pollution became under control. It soon became clear the industry was not the whole problem but people were also a major problem. This included discharge from homes, salt and brine from gas wells, the lack of septic systems, pet waste, the act of pouring motor oil down sewers and so on. The realization came about that everyone needed to be responsible but when one can’t pinpoint the exact reason for all of the pollution, it becomes even harder to control.

The question arose of how they could make the Cuyahoga River acceptable for the steel mills and the environment. The answer was to design and create ecological bulkheads which are exactly what are being tested on the Cuyahoga. These bulkheads keep the shipping channel open but also include pockets of natural habitat for plants and fish. It’s a solution that might work almost anywhere. It’s a way to restore life to deadened waterways all over urban America. A bulkhead shapes a river but the ultimate human tool for controlling water is a dam, which are temporary structures in the environment that don’t really do anything beneficial for the stream and are failures from an ecological standpoint. They are built by man and can be taken out by man. What is permanent in the scheme of things is the conflict between man and nature. The most problematic flow of that problem is the never ending flow of human waste. Few structures are more indispensable to their cities than the sewers and nothing tests the sewer systems like rain. Every time something else man made is created, rain washes away all the pollutants into storm drains which then go into sewers in north east Ohio which sometimes mix human waste with industrial waste. To keep these sewers from piling up during heavy storms, they have combined sewer overflow pipes which dump the untreated waste directly into the river.

The major problem with this is the bacteria can become a huge public health hazard. Cleveland is working on the problem and the city is building several storage tunnels to handle the overflow including one at Mill Creek. The water that is held in the storage tunnels is transferred to the sewer plant for treatment which is a significant upgrade in the removal of pollutants of Mill Creek and the pollution of the Cuyahoga watershed. Even though this is a huge step forward, the upstream falls in Akron, Ohio have problems but don’t have the money to fix it, so human and industrial waste are coming into the Cuyahoga River near Akron that is full of bacteria and pollutants. The challenge remains that the natural world is becoming smaller and the seemingly endless human sprawl means that communities all around the world are paving over water sheds and filling in wetlands, and it was just this type of environment which sparked a battle in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland, just ten miles from the mouth of the Cuyahoga River.

Parma is a blue collar, working class community and over the years, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was one of the greatest growing suburbs in the country. The community spread out quickly without thought of the green space but there was a tiny underdeveloped area in the woods where there was a small stream called West creek, which is a tributary to the Cuyahoga River. All the water that comes into West creek eventually travels to the Cuyahoga and then down into Lake Erie. Developers wanted to develop the area but met strong resistance from the community. The developers wanted to complete a number of projects like retail, a golf course, a mall, etc. that threatened the remaining open space around West creek which would inevitably add a lot more pollution to the area. A committee started quietly and began to collect signatures to keep the natural environment that was left in Parma. People agreed that there was too much asphalt and pollution. They insisted that people desire to have open space and greenery where they live and in their community. After a two year long battle of fighting with governors and city hall, they won and thus preserved the 350 acres of the Cuyahoga.

They put trails in to let people come in to see what they were fighting so hard to preserve. Over ten years, the West creek Preservation Committee successfully campaigned for stream protection laws in Parma and began to work with neighboring towns. They have raised 13 million dollars both to restore the original land along the creek and to add new property to the reservation. In north east Ohio, there are now dozens of groups that are committed to bringing back the Cuyahoga and taking it back! It’s an incredibly inspiring thing to see people driving a political process essentially telling elected officials that they are going to be voted in and out of office because of this topic. Citizen groups are trying to clean up the water and its tributaries. The West creek Preservation Committee is working to reclaim the confluence, which is the point where West creek empties into the Cuyahoga. They are planning to purchase the sight, restore the creek to its original banks and create about 7 acres of floodplain wetlands that will be the last filtration point for water that leaves West creek and enters the Cuyahoga River that goes into Lake Erie and then ultimately what we drink. The biologists and people finally believe that the Cuyahoga will one day be ultimately restored.

Cite this The Return of the Cuyahoga River

The Return of the Cuyahoga River. (2016, Jul 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/cuyahoga-river/

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