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1969 Cuyahoga River fire revealed burning issue, sparked new beginning

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On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River went up in flames. Before this, the river had caught fire at least a dozen times, as urban rivers catching fire wasn’t uncommon in those days.

Years of industrial waste polluted the Cuyahoga’s water quality back then. The 1969 fire caught the nation’s attention when the story appeared in Time magazine. It was the same issue as the Apollo 11 moon landing, so obviously a lot of people read about Cleveland and its river, leading to decades of jokes at the city’s and river’s expense.

However, there was a silver lining to the 1969 fire. It sparked a lot of reform of rivers and their water quality, not only locally but across the country.

In response, Congress passed federal legislation to help rivers improve their quality nationwide. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was created. This eventually led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of the EPA’s first pieces of legislation was the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The Clean Water Act mandated that all rivers in the country had to be clean enough to allow swimmers to swim and fish to inhabit the water within the next decade.

Fast-forward 50 years and the river has quite a different perception and reputation than the waterway that burned.

Last weekend, Cleveland celebrated the 50th anniversary with a lot of events and educational programs that not only celebrated progress over the last five decades, but also showed how to continue to keep the river a popular tourist attraction with a thriving ecosystem.

The Cuyahoga River is a favorite destination for kayakers, birders, hikers, bikers and nature lovers in general. The last survey showed nearly 60 species of fish call the river home, a vast improvement over time. Its 100 miles flow through a national park and into one of the Great Lakes, offering many opportunities for recreation.

North of Akron into the Cuyahoga Valley is one of the more scenic places we have in Northeast Ohio. With the river’s restoration, it’s now home to bald eagles, great blue herons and quality fishing. Anglers can catch steelhead and pike to name just a few species — a far cry from decades ago when there wasn’t a single fish in the river, which changed the entire area’s ecosystem.

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects 22 miles of the river and 33,000 acres of its watershed. There are always bikers, joggers and walkers on the towpath trail. With the restoration of fish, many species of birds have returned to the delight of birders.

If water levels would ever recede after this year’s abundant spring and summer rains, kayakers have lots of paddling options throughout the Cuyahoga River system. Even more paddling options should be available soon. The dam underneath the Route 82 bridge is expected to be removed this fall, helping to restore the river’s natural flow.

Jokes about Cleveland’s river catching fire probably won’t stop for those not familiar with the area. But those in the know realize that the 1969 fire was actually a blessing in disguise — a call for help from a dying natural resource. It drew the attention of the right people who in turn helped to restore it to its natural state.

The Cuyahoga River is a wonderful example of what people can do when working together and what we can accomplish in a relatively short period of time.

Contact Brad Zahar at bzaharoutdoors@gmail.com.


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