Conservation Minnesota

River Restoration Can Work, With Patience

As we edge toward the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, a recent experience brought back some memories.  You may remember, or read, about the infamous Cuyahoga river that caught fire in 1969 in Cleveland.  The fire was actually started by a dock worker throwing a lit cigarette that ignited an oil slick in the river near it’s Lake Erie mouth.

The fire quickly became an environmental cause celeb, and many think it was the “igniting incident” that led to the first Earth Day in 1970.  This was all brought back to me last week when I was flying back from New York City in the night sky and the airline pilot said we were going over Cleveland.  Time magazine, in a 1970 article, said the Cuyahoga was the river that doesn’t flow, but “oozes.”

I looked out the plane window and saw the vast lights of the Cleveland metro area, including the cities of Akron and Canton within the Cuyahoga river watershed.  As we got a little closer to Lake Erie, I could see the widest stretch of the Cuyahoga clearly as it flows through the lights of downtown Cleveland into the lake.  Along the river’s shoreline are now the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a thriving entertainment district called “The Flats.”

About 25 years ago, I attended a conference in Cleveland on environmental regulation.  I had heard upstream on the Cuyahoga, toward Akron, was a beautiful valley called the “New England” of Ohio.  And in the mid-1970’s, because of the valley and early attempts to clean up the river, the local Congressman convinced Congress to make a 25-mile stretch a National Recreation Area under the National Park Service.

So I had planned to take an extra day after the conference ended to rent a car and visit the valley, which I did.  Once I got south of Cleveland, I was amazed by the scenery, the bluffs and even waterfalls, and the historic nature of the Cuyahoga valley.  Interesting towns like Peninsula, Boston Mills and Brandwine appeared, and there was a trail system for biking and hiking along the river way.  The river itself didn’t look very clean, but it was December under an overcast sky.

Well, 25 years later, the water quality of the Cuyahoga has significantly improved.  Several “lost species” of fish have reappeared, and beaver have returned to the adjacent wetland areas. There is now a Friends of the Crooked River group, which was what Native-Americans called the Cuyahoga, that monitors and pushes cleanup efforts.  And the Cuyahoga was designated by President Clinton as one of 14 National Heritage Rivers, along with our Upper Mississippi.

As I continued on to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, I thought of river restoration and how far we’ve come on some rivers since the initial Earth Day.  We’ve made some progress on the mighty Mississippi, and even on the Minnesota, although both are continuing works in progress.  While some river success is occurring, other rivers are experiencing new degradation, including the fabled St. Croix.

We should have learned in the last 40+ years that rivers, the veins of Mother Earth, need constant cleanup.  And we can make this happen by constant monitoring, enforcement of our water quality laws, and exercising patience that we are making progress over time.

About John Helland

John Helland

John Helland is a history graduate of the University of Minnesota. He served as the nonpartisan legislative research analyst for the Minnesota House of Representatives after graduation. He worked extensively on environment and natural resources legislation and issues, and was the primary nonpartisan research staffer for the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committees from 1971 to 2008.

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