John Debo, former Cuyahoga Valley National Park superintendent, likes to tell a story of how in the late 1980s, he tried to inspire some advocacy and volunteering on the Cuyahoga River at a time when there was not much of either going on.
Debo said he had “a really wonderful opportunity to make what was a purposefully provocative statement” during a newspaper interview with an Akron Beacon Journal reporter.
“I said to Bob [Downing, the interviewer], ‘You know, this is a river that, as best I can see, has no friends,’ ” he said. “And it was then that Elaine Marsh and a few others stepped up and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, there are people that are concerned about the Cuyahoga River.’ ”
About 25 years later, the Cuyahoga River has many more people speaking for it — or at least they are more organized than ever. Marsh, co-founder of Friends of the Crooked River and its current conservation chair, said by her estimate, the river has 12 to 15 advocacy groups of its own now, and there are countless more “Friends of…” watershed groups and other organizations volunteering on the river.
“While [Debo] may have been right — we weren’t organized at the time — there were a large number of people, then and now, people who love their home river, the Cuyahoga River,” Marsh said. “And so I contacted him and said there were friends. And he had gotten calls from other people and we got together and sat around a kitchen table in my house and talked about becoming an advocate for the Cuyahoga River.”
The groups speaking for and taking care of the Cuyahoga River vary from nonprofit organizations such as Friends of the Crooked River, Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization and Western Reserve Land Conservancy to volunteer programs such as the one co-managed by the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the national park itself.
There is no question among advocates and volunteers that the Cuyahoga River is in much better shape than it was at the time of the notorious 1969 fire. But among the problems they say still need to be fixed on the Cuyahoga River are removing two more dams, eliminating the combined sewer overflows, restoring habitats for wildlife, balancing the amount of nutrients in the water and making the river more recreation-friendly.
Debo, now the chief development officer at the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, said combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, are a problem that groups have been trying to fix since his early days as park superintendent.
“I think it’s very surprising that in 2014, we still have discharge of raw sewage — completely raw, untreated sewage — into the Cuyahoga River very frequently under rainfall conditions,” Debo said. “We’re not talking about Calcutta or some third-world nation here. We’re talking about the city of Akron in the United States in 2014.”
Marsh said dam removal is a key issue for her organization.
“In the immediate future, I think we can look at getting out the two remaining dams, the Brecksville dam and the great 70-foot-high Ohio Edison dam [at Gorge Metropolitan Park],” Marsh said. “I think those will be great victories for the river and that they will really enhance quality of life, tourism, recreation and all of those things for the Cuyahoga River.”
Jane Goodman, executive director of the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization (CRCPO), said fish habitats and wildlife are also necessary water-quality indicators that need to be protected.
“The fish is the canary in our coal mine,” Goodman said. “If we can make happy, healthy fish — and lots of them all throughout the system — then we know the system is working right.”
Each group takes different directions in fixing these problems — advocacy, volunteering or sometimes a mix of the two.
The community planning organization, Goodman said, was created to implement, in the last 50 miles of the river, a remedial action plan. The plan is a mandate for this river and some others by international, national and state officials. Goodman said her organization is a nongovernmental group but gets some government funding and was hired by the government to implement the RAP.
“Whether or not they fund us, there is still this list of impairments that keeps the Cuyahoga River an area of concern on this list of degraded waterways,” Goodman said. “And if we want to get off that list, we have to do this.”
Sarah Ryzner, director of projects at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute, said her organization tackles issues by conserving land and also coordinating volunteer projects such as stream restorations and invasive-species pulls.
“We work on some stream-restoration projects, and we work with watershed groups and other organizations to improve water quality,” Ryzner said. “A lot of funding that we receive to preserve and conserve land comes from money that’s targeted to Great Lakes states to improve the overall water quality and ultimately Lake Erie.”
Lisa Meranti, director of volunteer services at the national park’s conservancy, said her organization’s volunteers do invasive-species pulls and stream restorations as well as more habitat restoration and planting native vegetation.
Marsh said Friends of the Crooked River begins projects by focusing on advocacy and moving into volunteering at the end of the project.
“Since we’ve been in business since 1989, we know pretty much what the big remaining issues are on the Cuyahoga River,” Marsh said. “And we’ve learned over time that the best issue to advocate for is one that has a chance of succeeding.”
Marsh said Friends of the Crooked River’s main role is educating the public about issues it finds important.
“Our goal is always to take the information on the road to speak to small groups and schools,” she said. “You know, it’s wherever two or more of you are gathered in the river’s name. We’re happy to come out and spread the good word.”
Friends of the Crooked River also organizes RiverDay, which she said can draw more than 2,000 people every year to 30 events at 17 locations where people can use the river for recreation, cleanup and education.
“We have absolutely every kind of experience along the river you can have,” Marsh said. “Take a day set aside [to] think about the river and the value that it plays in everybody’s lives.”
A wide variety of people volunteer with these organizations. Meranti said the park’s volunteer program has about 6,300 people volunteering each year and about 100 open volunteer positions with the conservancy that people can apply for online. About half of her volunteers are individuals who volunteer regularly.
“But then the other half of our volunteers are coming to us from various groups and organizations,” Meranti said. “We do a lot of work with youth groups; about 40 percent of our volunteers are youth groups. So they’re coming to us with their schools, maybe they’re coming from the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, different churches. And then we also have about a little shy of 10 percent come from corporate groups.”
Marsh said her conservancy, however, works more in partnership with other volunteer groups to take care of the river.
“We’re a very small organization, and the only way we get things done is through partnerships,” Marsh said. “We don’t have a volunteer base. We do have people we routinely communicate with, but mainly what we do is we work in partnership with other people, and when volunteers are needed, we just use the network.”
That network would include the CRCPO. Goodman said the organization does a lot of matching organizations to projects and making sure groups are working together when necessary.
“Our role in restoring the river is mostly putting pieces together, whether it’s putting partnerships together to create a stewardship group or putting people together to make a project happen or connecting someone who needs help with a stream cleanup with a group that has volunteers to help do that,” she said. “If a group needs volunteers for a stream cleanup, we help them. If we need people to plant trees, we have a range of partners that we can call on.”
Ryzner said volunteers are essential to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s work.
“A lot of the work that we do requires volunteers in order for projects to be successful, so as a nonprofit and as a conservation organization, we have lofty goals and limited resources,” Ryzner said. “And so it’s essential for us to complete projects that we engage volunteers in and without them, a lot of the work that we want to accomplish couldn’t be done.”
David Hill, an advocate for water quality and dam removal along the Cuyahoga River, is also a volunteer Cuyahoga River coordinator for American Whitewater, a national paddling organization. American Whitewater, which Hill said has several thousand members, uses local coordinators such as Hill to update their website with different developments about the rivers they cover.
Hill said he updates the website with the water’s safety level, which is rated on a scale from one to five based on remoteness, current, drops, ledges, hazards and access.
“You kind of get that sense as to what’s doable in your range and what’s not,” he said of the website’s information.
Hill also is a member of Keel-Haulers, a paddling-enthusiast club. He said he has advocated for dam removal, especially the ones in Cuyahoga Falls, because in a lot of ways it changes the layout of the river for paddlers. He says people need to be educated about how to use the river properly, though, and how the actions of people who do not paddle can affect recreation.
“I kinda got to be the mouthpiece for the Cuyahoga only because I live real close to it and I paddle it on a regular basis,” he said. “That’s our backyard; that’s our own little run. And it’s all well and good to share. It’s just making sure that those in the nonpaddling community kind of understand how this kind of plays into the whole part.”
Hill said the process of removing dams requires communication between the dam-removal team and the river’s various constituencies. The paddlers, he said, are able to consult on the project and tell them about what effects dam removal has on recreation.
“The paddlers didn’t push or direct the dams coming out. That was water quality that drove that bus,” he said. “But we were kind of along for the ride to just say, ‘If you’re going to change from stagnant water to moving water, here’s some of the things that are going to happen.’ ”
Water safety and quality continues to be an issue, Hill said, but the river has come a long way in just the last few years in terms of being accessible and safe.
“I think the administration and the government side of things struggles with, ‘How do I say it’s safe or not safe?’ And the answer is, you don’t make that determination — you present the information and let the individual decide,” he said.
Hill said the river will always have a “stain” on it because of the 1969 fire, but he is glad to see it coming back.
“It’s nice to see it turning around,” he said. “As it turns around, the biggest thing you have to deal with is public education and getting information out there to potential users.”
Officials have said they think that the river has come a long way and has a bright future, but there is still work to be done.
Debo and Marsh’s views differ on how safe the river is to use.
“The Cuyahoga is not yet a high-quality recreational resource,” Debo said. “It won’t be until it’s cleaned up. But I think there’s a lot of latent demand for access to the river by canoeists and kayakers and others. It’s not that you can’t use the river now, but it’s not clean much of the year, so we discourage people from using the river.”
Marsh said her group, on the other hand, is working hard on creating a “water trail” — a way of using the river for recreation such as canoeing, kayaking and rowing.
“The national park has not encouraged people to paddle the river … [but] we actually encourage people to use the river wisely,” Marsh said. “One of the reasons why we are establishing the water trail is to let people know where they can access the river, what the issues are, how to protect their health and that sort of thing.”
Goodman said of the problems her organization is tackling, some are close to completion, such as debris removal, boosting aquatic life levels and habitat restoration.
“We are going to try and do as absolutely much as we can get done in the next five years,” Goodman said. “[And] I’d say 10 years for most of these things.”
Debo said he thinks the river is not too far away from being totally usable.
“There will always be stewardship activity needed and environmental focus on the river for the other reasons,” he said. “But we’re approaching that day when I think there will be much to celebrate and our rivers, like the Cuyahoga, will become fully accessible and usable for the public.”
Marsh said she generally has an optimistic view of the river’s future, but she worries about the anti-regulation movement.
“It wasn’t until we had regulations, laws and enforcement agencies that things actually cleaned up,” Marsh said. “The next time you hear somebody tell you about the cost of overregulation, you think about the cost of underregulation — an environment not adequately protected for future generations.
“There actually is a movement to stop environmental protection stuff — funding it,” she said. “And it’s been kind of positive, and I’m worried about that. I think that a battle that we need to fight is that we need to protect the environment for the future. We need to make the case why it is important and why it should be funded.”
Debo said protection of the river is important and needs to continue.
“At the end of the day, there are all of the environmental reasons for cleaning up rivers, but I think in some respect it’s more spiritual,” Debo said. “They are a part of our landscape that has been abused and taken advantage of over the years, and they need to be brought back into a healthy condition.”