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Sewage, Sludge, & Fire: Students Investigate Water Quality of the Cuyahoga River

Posted on May 10, 2016 by in Conservation, Education


What comes to mind when you hear the words “Cuyahoga River”?  If you said “gross,” “burning river,” or “industrial wasteland,” you are not alone.  And, unfortunately, that is not too far from the truth.  The Cuyahoga River has quite a colorful history with sewage, sludge, and fires, but, let’s start at the beginning.


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Map of the Cuyahoga River Watershed Photo credit: Wikipedia

Cuyahoga means “crooked river,” and it certainly earns the name; it kind of looks like a backwards letter “U.” The river’s origin starts in two separate branches in Geauga County which join and flow south through the city of Akron.  The river then loops back north to the city of Cleveland making several tight hairpin turns at the end before emptying out into Lake Erie.

The Cuyahoga’s watershed, or drainage basin, consists of farmland, many urban and suburban neighborhoods, and some green space like Cuyahoga Valley National Park.


When Moses Cleveland first landed on the Cuyahoga in 1796, the river was beautiful and pristine. He surveyed the land around the river and deemed it a prime place to expand our country westward; and thus, the city of Cleveland was born.

Through the 1800s, Ohio’s growth became exponential.  With the addition of the Ohio and Erie Canal, connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River, local businesses and farms had access to fancy goods and building materials from factories along the east coast.  Ohio’s farmers could sell their goods for higher prices in a more competitive market.  Our city grew quickly and Cleveland became THE place to be.

By the 1900’s America was at the height of the industrial revolution.  John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie contributed significantly to the growth of Cleveland.  Carnegie produced steel mills (steel is essential for building sky scrapers and large bridges) and Rockefeller produced oil refineries (kerosene lamps were used to light every home in the country).  At this time, more millionaires lived in Cleveland than in New York City.

One of Rockefeller’s oil refineries.  Photo credit: wikipedia

While businesses boomed, and Cleveland became richer, the Cuyahoga River suffered the consequences.  With no laws in place to regulate waste, industries dumped all kinds of chemicals and waste materials into the river.  Imagine open trenches in which gasoline slid from the oil refineries to the river (gasoline was an unwanted byproduct prior to the invention of cars).  The pristine Cuyahoga landscape Moses Cleveland once surveyed had been replaced with buildings, concrete, and an immense amount of pollution.

Here comes the crazy part.  There was so much sludge, gasoline, industrial waste, etc. entering the river that the Cuyahoga caught on fire!  Not once, not twice, but thirteen times.  The biggest fire, pictured below, occurred in the 1950s.  The most famous fire, igniting in 1969, gained national attention and sparked an important environmental movement.  Have you ever heard of Earth Day?

Photo credit:

Time Magazine published a famous article about the Cuyahoga, titled “America’s Sewage System and the Price of Optimism.”  It describes the river at its worst using phrases like, “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with surface gases, it oozes rather than flows,” and, “Anyone who falls in the Cuyahoga does not drown… He decays.”

Photo credit:

Along with the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the general public started to increase their environmental literacy.  Slowly but surely, over time, the river started to recuperate.  Though we’ve amended some of the obvious pollution sources (no more open trenches of gasoline), we still have a long way to go to fully restore the river to a healthy state.


Students assemble a timeline of Cuyahoga History.  Photo credit: GCA

In our Rivers & Lakes: Keeping the Great Lakes Great program, and our Water Quality Scientist program, we take kids to the Cuyahoga to determine the health of the river today.  Guided by the scientific method, the students complete a set of scientific tests to determine whether the water quality is excellent, good, fair, or poor.

***Link Rivers & Lakes: Keeping the Great Lakes Great program to

***Link Water Quality Scientist to

Students test for temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, phosphates, nitrates, and turbidity.  We discuss why each of these parameters is important and what can make their levels change.  For example: oxygen levels can drop if the water is stagnant, phosphate levels spike when farm fertilizer runoff enters the water, and nitrate levels rise when human sewage is dumped in the river from sewer overflow points.   According to our research, most days the Cuyahoga’s health comes out “fairly good.”  There is definitely still room for improvement.

Student teams test the water for dissolved oxygen content.


We end our water quality programs with a discussion about the future.  How can we restore the river to its excellent, healthy state?  First and foremost, become environmentally aware and literate.  Share the information you learn with your friends and family.  Every action, from every person, contributes to our river’s health.  We all have to do our part.

How can YOU help the Cuyahoga River?  Here is a short list to get you started:

  1. Stop littering and pick up trash you see along the river
  2. Plant trees — trees and plants hold back sediment and reduce turbidity.
  3. Turn off the water while you brush your teeth and take shorter showers – by conserving water, less wastewater will enter our rivers during heavy storm events through combined sewer overflow
  4. Learn about Combined Sewer Overflow:
  1. Buy organic produce — organic farms do not contribute to fertilizer runoff
  2. Support local parks and help with river restoration projects
  3. Reduce, reuse, and recycle
  4. Continue Learning! Check the additional resources below.

Learn more about Cuyahoga River history and the many river fires:

Learn more about watersheds and stormwater runoff:

Read the 1969 Time Magazine article:,9171,901182,00.html

Learn more about education programs at Greater Cleveland Aquarium: