So the (muddy) bottom line is this: If you were a fish, would you want to live in Lake Erie and/or the Cuyahoga River? If you are among the 11 million people plus thousands of businesses, churches and schools who depend on the lake for drinking water, should you chug with gusto? If you are a canoeist or kayaker and tipped into either body of water, do you need to immediately shower in antibiotics?
What is the water quality of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River today?
The answer largely depends upon what part of the 127.6-trillion-gallon lake or 84-mile-long river is under the microscope. And if it recently rained hard.
“Sometimes depends on the river and how much rain the river gets,” says Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, licensed by Waterkeeper Alliance, the largest nonprofit solely focused on global clean water. “Sometimes people say, ‘You are telling me the Cuyahoga River is better, but the lake is worse. Why is that?’ It’s a tale of two rivers. The Cuyahoga River is on a path to a great recovery. Industry discharge is down, dams removed, dredging is controlled. We see paddlers and other people who experience the river on a daily basis giving positive, daily feedback.
“But the Maumee River is still a problem. It often turns very green, and people should not recreate in it. You don’t see that with the Cuyahoga anymore,” says Bihn, who points to western Ohio’s agricultural phosphorous runoff that feeds harmful algal blooms (HABs) as a major culprit. “The Maumee is going backward. It is the river that is contributing the most problems to Lake Erie.”
“The western basin of Lake Erie and some parts of Lake Ontario have experienced a resurgence of HABs since 2008, adversely impacting ecosystem health as well as commercial fishing, municipal drinking water systems and recreational activities,” according to Chris Korleski, Great Lakes National Program Office Director, U.S. EPA. (The federal agency also recognizes Lake Erie’s $12.9 billion tourism industry.) “Algal blooms are particularly harmful when they are dominated by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) which can produce toxins such as microcystin. These toxins can impact drinking water safety. Cladophora is a nuisance algae that is broadly distributed over large areas of the nearby shore regions of Lake Erie.”
While agriculture plays a large role in achieving desired phosphorus reductions in Lake Erie, “reductions will be needed from urban, suburban and non-farm areas as well,” says Korleski.
Joy Mulinex, governor’s director of the Lake Erie Commission, calls Lake Erie “dynamic,” with conditions changing regularly.
“In general, for most parts of the lake in recent years, the water quality has been sufficient for drinking, swimming, recreational boating and producing edible fish with limited restrictions. (Although) at times during the summer, late fall and after strong rains, there have been water quality problems,” says Mulinex, who noted Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s new H2Ohio Fund designed to steer resources to the problems.
Two of the biggest producers of bottled water in the state start with water originally treated by Cleveland Water, add a few extras, and then charge “3,000 percent more,” according to Cleveland Water Commissioner Alex Margevicius.
Cleveland’s water source and treatment system is envied by others who do not have access to Lake Erie, an incredible natural resource, Margevicius says.
“Not only is the quantity of our source water extremely abundant, but the quality is far more stable and consistent than it is from a river source,” explains Margevicius. “After a great rain, the source water for a water treatment plant taken from a river can change dramatically. The water treatment has to be varied. It is far easier to make a mistake if the conditions vary significantly and dramatically.”
Cleveland’s drinking water is sourced 3 to 5 miles offshore, and there is “virtually no impact from anything on land,” according to Water Quality Manager Scott Moegling, who ranks the water sourced by Cleveland Water as “outstanding.” Cleveland’s industrial legacy beginning 100 years ago necessitated locating intakes farther into the more center of the lake. Even though that was an expensive investment at the time, Margevicius calls it “a good push” that benefits water customers even today.
Add that to the fact Cleveland’s water comes from Lake Erie’s Central Basin, not the East or the West basins where those troublesome HABs like to take up residence, and the city’s drinking water has a better beginning. Cleveland’s water is tested by sensors on buoys in the lake and again before it enters the treatment plant.
“Fifteen years ago and before Toledo’s drinking water problem, treatment plants all knew about algae. But we weren’t so much worried about toxins as we were the aesthetics of the water — how the water tasted and smelled. Now we do much more research on algae and learn something every year,” says Margevicius.
Joint studies in 2017 by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) and Ohio EPA were conducted to assess the biological communities and the water and habitat qualities of the Cuyahoga River. Eight locations along the river were chosen for evaluation. The Qualitative Habitat Evaluation Index (QHEI) was used to determine the attributes of a stream. The Ohio EPA’s target score was 60. Scores along the Cuyahoga River ranged from 54 to 82, with all but one site scoring at least 60.
The presence of pollution sensitive fish also indicates improved water quality, according to the report. The overall health of fish and macroinvertebrate communities (think insect larvae, worms, snails, etc.) has also “improved substantially over the past several decades,” the report states. The Cuyahoga River is now home to more than 60 species of fish, as well as freshwater mussels.
Scudder Mackey, chief, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Office of Coastal Management, says record hatches of walleyes — “the best it has been in years” — will continue over the next several years. And that’s a good sign Lake Erie is becoming healthier. Water quality in general is “good,” Mackey says, but still there are remaining challenges .
Legacy contamination is one of concerns. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are industrial chemicals once used in TVs, refrigerators, electrical insulators and other products before being banned in the United States in 1979. PCBs are found in sediments and in shallow water. Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA are working hard to eliminate these chemicals before they enter the environment. Mackey says the ODNR is addressing the issue.
“Our researchers have monitored the Cuyahoga River since 1984, and you can see the upward trend at all tracked river miles since our research began,” says Jenn Elting, senior public information specialist for the NEORSD, an independent political subdivision not under the jurisdiction of the city of Cleveland or Cuyahoga County.
NEORSD isn’t quite so gentle assessing the quality of community lakefront beaches. It says lakefront beaches have been rated poorly by others for water quality. Sewer overflows and runoff are the main enemies to clean beaches.
But in some locations, fewer beach quality advisories have been recently posted. We are reclaiming our beaches — at least for sand volleyball and sand castles — if not for serious swimming.
For up-to-date water quality, visit Ohio NowCast, an online, real-time water quality report developed by the U.S. Geological Survey. The day’s water quality predictions are posted in the morning.
NEORSD also conducts water quality samples at Cleveland Metroparks Edgewater Beach and Villa Angela Beach. Several public health agencies also do regular water testing at beaches and parks, primarily for E. coli that can cause intestinal distress. For example, the Lake County General Health District tests water quality at Headlands State Park in Mentor, one of the region’s most popular beaches.
So, do you cool off in the lake this summer and let your dog retrieve sticks thrown into the waves? The general consensus is to check daily advisories and use common sense. Health officials say those with suppressed immune systems, as well as the elderly and very young, should consider an apartment pool or waterpark instead.
To the south, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) protects the Cuyahoga River Watershed along 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River, according to Pamela Barnes, CVNP community engagement supervisor. Barnes says the biggest issues facing the park’s river quality are flooding and the increased bacteria from the river. The problem, park officials believe, is “due to runoff from impervious surfaces outside the park into tributaries and, in turn, into the river.
“The increased bacteria come along with rain events, due to combined sewer overflows,” says Barnes. “We applaud the city of Akron for its work in improving wastewater treatment. The water quality in the park has been improving, but there is still work to be done. The fact that we have seen a comeback of great blue heron, bald eagles and river otters tell us that the river ecosystem has made great strides in recovery since CVNP was founded in1974.”
Sharing the River
Jim Ridge is the founder of Share the River, an organization that “promotes the social, recreational and economic vibrancy of Cleveland’s waterfront.” Ridge, sort of a one-man band and clearing house for all things River, believes there are many ways to evaluate water quality. One view is to look at the recent real estate development near bodies of water. He points to new housing in Duck Island, a rapidly developing neighborhood sandwiched between Tremont and Ohio City, as well as other near-water local developments.
“Would those investments have happened if the Cuyahoga River was full of pollution? Clean water is an economic driver. Pollution is bad for business. You can consume fish from this river, paddleboard on this river. Come on down and play on this river,” says Ridge, promoting Blazing Paddles, a standup paddleboard, canoe and kayak celebration held June 22, the anniversary of the original Cuyahoga River fire. “That’s the photo-op Cleveland and the rest of the country needs to see — all those people on the river. It’s a game changer for the city’s image.”
Ridge says he would give the Cuyahoga River’s water quality an “A,” except in times of heavy rains, when he would grade it a “B” or “C” because of extra challenges.
“The Cuyahoga River is a tough river,” says Ridge. “Just remember it is a green highway and we all have to share it.”
But will we ever have to share our water resources with the sun-drenched, more populated and thirstier parts of our country? Only time will tell.