The Cuyahoga River and the Clean Water Act: Then to Now
By: Zachary Klinke and Ivy Steinberg-McElroy
The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 served as a catalyst for the creation of the Clean Water Act, and now 54 years later, the area is at risk from pollution and development once again.
The Cuyahoga River, specifically the section that runs through what is now Cuyahoga Valley National Park, has a long history of pollution as well as conservation efforts. This ecological gem that sits between Cleveland and Akron Ohio was once a toxic dumping ground for many commercial companies and residential communities during the 1900’s. In fact, there are numerous documented cases of the river catching fire due to oil slicks and other chemicals present in the water (Boissoneault, 2019). These issues were largely ignored, because a dirty river meant a booming local economy at the time. After decades of mistreatment, activists and other community members did begin to advocate for change and accountability.
(Firemen struggle to combat a fire on the Cuyahoga River, Getty Images)
In 1969, change was happening at a rigorous rate. A large fire occurred that year, and citizens seemed to have had enough. The national attention this event gained helped lead to the bipartisan creation of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972, which has the objective of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s water. By 1974, Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area was created to help protect the land and use it for outdoor recreation. In 1985 many big companies such as Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, 3M, and Chevron were found to have dumped tons of toxic materials in the area and a decades-long cleanup took place. After $50 million was given by the negligible parties and 35 years of effort, the National Park Service was satisfied. During that time Cuyahoga Valley changed its designation from a National Recreation Area to National Park in 2000, this allowed more funding and spotlight on the natural area and its segment of the Cuyahoga River.
Just this year, the scope of the Clean Water Act was drastically limited by the Supreme Court in May of 2023 with the Sackett v. EPA decision. The Clean Water Act had previously protected wetlands that had a “significant nexus” to federally protected waters, and this nexus could include perennial or ephemeral (not occurring year round) connections via surface water or groundwater. The Court’s new ruling in Sackett v. EPA states that only wetlands with a permanent surface water connection to federally protected waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. This leaves wetland protection and regulation to the states, many of whom do not have the capacity or regulatory programs in place for wetlands. This means ephemeral streams, streams cut off by roads and levees, those with a groundwater connection, and more will only be protected from development if the state they are in implements strict protection laws, and many states are doing the opposite. This is unfortunate because wetlands are a vital ecosystem that provide benefits such as filtering pollutants out of waterways, buffering floods, and providing habitat and food for many species as well as recreation for humans.
This will have an impact on as many as half of the 118 million acres of wetlands in the U.S. are no longer protected by the Clean Water Act (Dalta, 2023), including national parks. Waters that are on federal lands including national parks are not automatically considered federal waters (Magill, 2023), meaning national parks such as Indiana Dunes, the Everglades, as well as major water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River will be at risk. Cuyahoga Valley National Park itself could be at risk, as it has vernal pools, or temporary shallow pools that are only there in the spring (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2018).
The story of the Cuyahoga River and the CWA has now come full circle, but unfortunately without the same rigor the general public had for protecting this country’s waterways or the bipartisan effort on both sides of government to do so. Protecting wetlands is more important now than ever as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and floods, which wetlands can buffer. Wetlands prevented $625 Million in direct flood damages during Hurricane Sandy (Narayan et al., 2017) and kept our waterways clean. National parks are one of the few protected areas left in the United States, and are now at risk of development and pollution once again. All we can hope for now is for states to enact strict wetland protection laws that protect our waterways and that the spirit of environmentalism this country once had comes back stronger than ever.
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until 1969. Smithsonian.com.
Datla, K. (2023). What does Sackett v. EPA mean for clean water?. Earthjustice.
Magill, B. (2023). Supreme Court Wetlands Ruling Imperils Waters on public lands.
Narayan, S., Beck, M. W., Wilson, P., Thomas, C. J., Guerrero, A., Shepard, C. C., Reguero, B.
G., Franco, G., Ingram, J. C., & Trespalacios, D. (2017). The value of coastal wetlands
for flood damage reduction in the Northeastern USA. Scientific Reports, 7(1).
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U.S. Department of the Interior. (2018). Wetlands. National Parks Service.