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When will the Cuyahoga be okay?

David Beach  |  02/21/13 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Clean water

Remaining challenges for a working river<br />Much work remains before the Cuyahoga River can be de-listed as a Great Lakes Area of Concern.

The following happy press release appeared in my email recently:

WASHINGTON (Feb. 14, 2012) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced that Presque Isle Bay, on the Pennsylvania shore of Lake Erie, has been removed from the list of heavily contaminated Great Lakes sites targeted for cleanup by the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Environmental conditions in Presque Isle Bay have significantly improved due to actions taken by federal, state and local government. Studies have shown that revitalized waterways, like Presque Isle Bay, can benefit the local economy and better protect people's health. Presque Isle Bay is now the second site in the nation to be taken off the list of Great Lakes "Areas of Concern" (AOCs).

This good news from our Erie, PA, neighbors on Lake Erie got me thinking about our Cuyahoga River Area of Concern. Local officials have been planning the cleanup of the river and nearby Lake Erie shore for more than 20 years. When will that job be done? When can we be declared safe and be officially “de-listed”?

The answer seems to be that, despite a great deal of progress, we are still many years away from declaring victory. Below is a quick summary of the remaining challenges (the water quality “impairments”) from Jane Goodman, executive director of the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization, the group in charge of coordinating cleanup efforts.

The Cuyahoga can be de-listed:

  • When we have viable fish habitat throughout the ship channel in the Flats (the last big issue for the “fish habitat” impairment). Several habitat-enhancing projects are underway – the Scranton Peninsula Towpath Trail and riverbank restoration project, which will be planted in the fall, the County Planning Commission's biomimicry project (just about to start their planning process), and a project that Cleveland Metroparks is planning at Rivergate Park. But we need to fill in the gaps so that habitat sites are close enough for larval fish to survive on their way to the lake and juveniles to use on their way upriver. We also need the right types of habitat to support a wider variety of species than are there now. Currently, we are working on grant applications to develop a comprehensive plan for the whole channel. Instead of adding habitat just where it’s easiest to install and without regard to what the fish actually need, we're finally defining what fish would be using the channel, how far they can travel on their own, and where the hotspots and anoxic zones are--and then we are designing an end-to-end plan.
  • When we remove the Gorge Dam and Route 82 Dam and open the river to fish passage for normal spawning (the "fish population" impairment). We've got the assessment of the sediment in the Gorge Dam pool, and there's more than 800,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment that will need to be removed before the dam comes down. So we need to decide how to do that. As for the Route 82 Dam (crossing the river below the Route 82 Bridge in Brecksville), the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio EPA, and other partners are working on how best to take it down while still diverting water to the Ohio &Erie Canal.
  • When the combined sewer overflow (CSO) work of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and the City of Akron is done, and we can see if it will reduce bacteria levels enough to permit recreational contact with the water in the river and Lake Erie beaches (the "beach closing/public access" impairment). It's possible (though unlikely) that the levels could drop before they finish the whole project -- unlikely because that's probably only half the problem. Aging sanitary sewer lines all over the watershed, as well as animal poop, contribute a large portion of the bacteria, and the CSO projects won't help with those. In the meantime, we're pushing green infrastructure to lessen the loads on the CSO systems.
  • When people can get to the river and use it (the "public access" impairment). This will probably be covered when the Scranton Road Towpath project is done and Rivergate is offering on-the-water paddling ventures, so this one might get de-listed pretty soon. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s trails plan has water access, too, although it’s not certain when that will be implemented.
  • When the sediment to be dredged in the ship channel is clean enough for open-lake placement (the "restrictions on dredging" impairment). This might actually come fairly soon, perhaps in a year. It would be de-listed when the dredgings do not have to go to a confined disposal facility.
  • When we have healthy benthic populations (organisms that live at the bottom of a water body) in the mainstem of the river and most of the streams (the "benthos" impairment). This will happen in the river when the dams are down. We don't think we’ll be required to have benthos in the ship channel except for organisms grow on the new habitat installations.
  • When the fish are consumable at least as often as the guidelines for fish in the rest of the nearshore lake area. We think that Ohio EPA is going to clarify this impairment, which should make it more attainable.
  • When we clear out or lock in the Old River Channel's remaining sediment, and they test a generation of bullhead catfish without finding deformities, eroded fins, lesions, or tumors. And we take care of a couple of questionable sites along Tinker's Creek.
  • When nutrient loads are down to target levels, and excessive algae isn't showing up (the "eutrophication" impairment). This is another reason to work on green infrastructure that reduces polluted stormwater from flowing into the river. We have to do some more monitoring on this, but it might be one of the next impairments to go.
  • When we clean up aesthetic restrictions to use of the river. We might actually be able to de-list this one right away, since the Port's new debris harvesters are removing the debris in the ship channel and harbor. We'll be asking about delisting this impairment and hoping the authorities don't require us to prevent all littering by people at beaches.

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