Rebirth of the Cuyahoga River
Cathy Basile, 11-30-2018

The Cuyahoga River flowing near the rear of Burntwood Tavern before and after the removal of the LaFever Powerhouse Dam.
Stephen Mulé
Choked with industrial wastes, oil, agricultural runoff, human waste, and chemical poisons even as early as the late-19th century, the Cuyahoga River was described as “an open sewer” by former Cleveland Mayor Rensselaer R. Herrick. The river even famously (or, perhaps, infamously) caught fire—like other rivers around the country—no fewer than 13 times since 1868. Still, change eventually came.

In 1987, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), first signed in 1972 and renewed in 1978, was amended and reaffirmed by the United States and Canada. The agreement strengthened programs, practices, and technologies and set timetables for the implementation of programs to reverse and stop water pollution. The result of these programs has been quite successful, and the Cuyahoga has gotten better with each year.

Fishing enthusiasts can now fish for smallmouth bass, yellow and white perch, bluegills, three species of catfish, and even walleye. One popular fishing spot is in the Gorge Metro Park in Cuyahoga Falls. The year-round park boasts not only fishing, but ice skating, hiking trails, and picnicking. Canoeing and kayaking have also become very popular along the Cuyahoga, especially in and around Cuyahoga Falls. Burning River Adventures offers canoe and kayak rentals, and there are several other liveries in nearby towns, even northward as far as Lake Erie. Rental companies offer full instruction for the beginner as well as all necessary equipment and safety gear.

Cuyahoga Falls also boasts a beautiful series of wooden walkways along the west side of the river that go from Broad Boulevard north to Oakwood Drive—perfect for a romantic stroll. The Riverwalk even offers several unique, high quality restaurants with great views of the river, including Beau’s on the River, Burntwood Tavern, and Missing Mountain Brewing Co., located near the Silver Lake border.

Recent restorations of the river have included the removal of the Sheraton Mill Dam near Broad Boulevard and the LaFever Powerhouse Dam just north of Portage Trail. The price tag for the dam removal was $1 million, with funding provided by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District via the Ohio EPA. The dams were removed to boost water quality by increasing water flow and allowing for natural removal of sand and sediment clogging the river channel. Further improvement to the river system included modifications to dams in Munroe Falls and Kent. As the water flow was increased, it raised the channel in a section of the river near Waterworks Park by nearly three feet.

Future projects include the Brecksville Dam removal, scheduled for removal in 2019, and the Gorge Dam removal, located between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, which has yet to get a removal date. At 68 feet tall and 429 feet wide, the Gorge Dam will be a sizable project. When work gets underway, removal of more than 832,000 cubic yards of debris and contaminated sediment will create quite a challenge. The final result, however, will be a river returned to its original wild state with cleaner water, healthy aquatic life, and a diverse and rich riparian ecosystem. Exposure of the magnificent waterfalls and other natural features currently hidden by the Gorge Dam, moreover, will create Class II - V rapids. These improvements will help boost the local economy, increase tourism, and ensure the growth and continuation of the Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race which is scheduled for its 4th annual event in 2019.

The beautiful fall foliage reflected in the waters at Waterworks Park is on display now, while kayaking excursions ramp up in the spring. The falls are always visible from a table at one of several local eateries, and picnics at Gorge Park are doable as long as weather permits (or if picnickers are impervious to Ohio winter temperatures). A walk along the banks of the Cuyahoga is beautiful in the fall, especially with the sights and sounds that make the river such a unique asset to Cuyahoga Falls—especially now that it has been reborn.

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