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EPA Great Lakes National Program Office
Karen Rodriguez

Cuyahoga River

Lake Erie

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Current priority issues of the remedial action plan include several that are outgrowths of recent projects and studies. Habitat restoration, navigation channel dissolved oxygen/larval fish studies, stream stewardship, wetland identification, urban storm water management, and comprehensive environmental education and community involvement are all major priorities. The RAP has received funding from the EPA – Great Lakes National Program Office to assist the restoration/delisting work group in assessing beneficial use status of river segments and individual tributaries utilizing the Ohio delisting targets as a guideline.

The Cuyahoga River RAP stakeholder members are also committed to honoring the designation of the Cuyahoga River as an American Heritage River. The historical, cultural and environmental significance of this river, as well as its past, present and future economic impacts on the nation, make it a worthy selection for such recognition. Because of the efforts of dedicated agencies, organizations, local stakeholders and private individuals, the Cuyahoga River will never burn again!

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About the Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga River is located in northeast Ohio. It begins its 100-mile journey in Geauga County and flows south to Cuyahoga Falls, where it turns sharply north until it empties into Lake Erie. The river drains 813 square miles of land in portions of six counties. Native Americans referred to the U-shaped river as the Cuyahoga or "crooked river." The boundaries of the Area of Concern were set by the Cuyahoga RAP Coordinating Committee in 1988. The AOC includes the lower 45 miles of the river from the Ohio Edison Dam to the mouth, as well as approximately 10 miles of Lake Erie shoreline, from Edgewater Park on the west side of Cleveland to Wildwood Park on the east. The AOC also encompasses the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area which preserves 22 miles of river between the primary urban/industrial centers of Akron and Cleveland.

Fires plagued the Cuyahoga River beginning in 1936 when a spark from a blow torch ignited floating debris and oils. The largest river fire in 1952 caused over $1 million in damage to boats and a riverfront office building. By the 1960s, the lower Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was used for waste disposal and was choked with debris, oils, sludge, industrial wastes and sewage. These pollutants were considered a major source of impact to Lake Erie, which was considered "dead" (devoid of fish) at the time. On June 22, 1969 a river fire captured national attention. Time magazine described the Cuyahoga as the river that "oozes rather than flows" and in which a person "does not drown but decays." This event helped spur an avalanche of pollution control activities resulting in the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the creation of the federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies.

The beneficial use impairments of the river are caused by cultural eutrophication, toxic substances, bacterial contamination, habitat modification and sedimentation. Sources for these contaminants include municipal and industrial discharges, bank erosion, commercial/residential development, atmospheric deposition, hazardous waste disposal sites, urban storm water runoff, combined sewer overflows and wastewater treatment plant bypasses.

Remedial Action Plan

The Cuyahoga River RAP process began in 1988 when the Ohio EPA, the designated lead agency for developing RAPs in Ohio, appointed a 33-member planning committee to develop the Cuyahoga River RAP. This group, the Cuyahoga River RAP Coordinating Committee, is a balanced representation of stakeholders in the planning process and is comprised of representatives from local, regional, state and federal agencies, businesses and industry, and citizen and environmental organizations. The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency provided planning support for the RAP.

In June 1992, the stage I report was completed, identifying the impairments of beneficial uses and sources along with the causes of those impairments. This report was updated in early 1996, which presented more recent data on issues previously addressed along with discussions on other environmental issues. Several of the impairments have shown improvement, especially degradations of fish and wildlife populations. The establishment of bald eagles in the AOC in 2006 was a major accomplishment in the remedial action process.

Preparation of the RAP is done by the CCC, with assistance from the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization, a nonprofit organization formed by the RAP steering committee to support its goals. Technical work is conducted by RAP staff and through various work groups established around specific issue areas or grant-related projects.

Currently, none of the BUIs have been delisted. The boundary of the Cuyahoga River AOC was expanded in 2010 to include the Gorge Dam pool so that it could receive funding under the Great Lakes Legacy Act to remove sediment and increase remediation.  

Beneficial Use Impairments

Ten of 14 beneficial use impairments have been identified through the RAP process. The Cuyahoga RAP is currently in the process of utilizing the 2008 delisting targets document to assess the impairment status of the Cuyahoga River AOC on a river segment and tributary-by-tributary basis. The Ohio EPA and CCC made a request in 2009 to delist the following BUIs: degradation of fish populations; degradation of benthos; loss of fish habitat; and fish tumors or other deformities. They also proposed to change the status of the follow BUIs from “unknown” to “not impaired”: tainting of fish and wildlife flavor; degradation of wildlife populations; and bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems.

  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • Beach closings
  • Fish tumors or other deformities
  • Degradation of aesthetics
  • Degradation of benthos
  • Restriction on dredging activities
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat

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  • 2010: Cuyahoga River AOC Boundary Expansion Request to include the Gorge Dam pool was granted by the EPA – GLNPO.
  • 2006: Bald eagles establish at least two nesting sites within the AOC, including a new nest along the Cuyahoga River mainstream between Akron and Cleveland in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
  • 2004: RAP/American Heritage River Initiative conducts a symposium on "Investing in Healthy Streams Sustains Healthy Communities.”
  • 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers complete a habitat feasibility study in the Cuyahoga River navigation channel that provides potential technologies and possible sites for habitat improvement projects and produces a report on conceptual designs for improvements in larval fish populations.
  • 2003: RAP consultants complete a GIS wetlands inventory and restoration assessment.
  • 2003: U.S. EPA approves Ohio EPA’s Lower Cuyahoga River TMDL report outlining sources and causes for biological and water quality impairments along with remedial measures.
  • 1998: RAP achieves presidential designation of the Cuyahoga River watershed as one of fourteen American Heritage Rivers in the nation.
  • 1996: Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan Stage I Update Report - Impairment of Beneficial Uses and Sources of Pollution in the Cuyahoga River AOC completed.
  • 1996: Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan – Progress in Restoring the Environmental Quality of the Cuyahoga River: An Early Implementation Report completed. 
  • 1992: Cuyahoga River RAP stage I report completed.
  • 1989: Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization established by the CCC to support RAP activities.
  • 1988: Cuyahoga River RAP Coordinating Committee established by Ohio EPA.
  • 1969: The "burning" Cuyahoga River creates a national scandal and a challenge to clean up polluted urban rivers.

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You will need the free Adobe Reader to view some of the files on this page. See EPA's PDF page to learn more.

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Community Involvement

The Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization continues to support the development and coordination of tributary watershed stewardship groups in the AOC, including Friends of Big Creek, Pond Brook Watershed Initiative, Friends of the Crooked River, Yellow Creek Watershed Council, Tinkers Creek Watershed Council, Euclid Creek Watershed Council, West Creek Preservation Committee and Doan Brook Watershed Partnership. CRCPO has created several educational brochures related to the Clinton River watershed that are available under the Documents section. They also present in schools and other public meetings to stress the importance of the delisting the Clinton River AOC. CRCPO holds many events, especially in the summer months, for residents to learn more about the river.

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What is a beneficial use impairment?

Impairment of beneficial use is a change in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause any of the following 14 use impairments:

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • tainted fish and wildlife flavor
  • loss of fish or wildlife habitat
  • degraded fish and wildlife populations
  • fish tumors or other deformities
  • bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems
  • degradation of benthic macroinvertebrate communities
  • restrictions on dredging activities
  • eutrophication or undesirable algae
  • restrictions on drinking water consumption or taste and odor problems
  • beach closings
  • degradation of aesthetics
  • added costs to agriculture and industry
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton

What is a remedial action plan?

The remedial action plan, or RAP, is a process to clean up the waterfront, rivers, habitats and waters. The United States and Canada, as part of the Great Lake Water Quality Agreement, committed to cooperate with State and Provincial Governments to ensure that RAPs are developed and implemented for all Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes basin. Forty-three AOCs have been identified: 26 located entirely within the United States; 12 located entirely within Canada; and five that are shared by both countries. RAPs address impairments to any one of 14 beneficial uses (e.g., restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, dredging activities, or drinking water consumption) associated with these areas.

What is a delisting target?

In order to move towards formal delisting, RAPs need delisting targets to gauge their success:

  • Delisting targets should be premised on local goals and related environmental objectives for the watershed; they should be consistent with the applicable federal and state regulations, objectives, guidelines, standards and policies, when available, and the principles and objectives embodied in Annex 2 and supporting parts of the GLWQA.
  • Delisting targets should have measurable indicators.
  • Delisting targets should be developed and periodically reviewed on a site specific basis (allowing for flexibility in addressing local conditions) by the respective state agencies, in consultation with local stakeholder groups. This is particularly important if new information becomes available.

More information about the delisting process>>

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