Five decades removed from the 1969 fire, what do the next 50 years hold for the Cuyahoga River?
Pollution. Climate. Regulatory unknowns. The threats flowing into the Cuyahoga River must be met with resolve, creativity, and collaboration in order to ensure its future health.
We have seen the river suffer before. The 1969 fire that began a new movement drew much needed attention that changed the environmental landscape of the entire country. Our work as the Regional Sewer District contributed much to improved water quality, infrastructure investment, and programmatic and regulatory advancements to protect the Cuyahoga further with each passing year since 1972.
The challenges were real then, and they remain real today. What solutions are we advancing today for a cleaner Cuyahoga over the next half century?
Project Clean Lake construction
Project Clean Lake is our 25-year agreement with the federal government to reduce levels of pollution in Lake Erie.
The region’s sewer system constructed before the 1900s was designed as a combined system in which sewage and stormwater flowed in the same pipe. The design served a purpose as greater volumes of flow would receive treatment when plants were constructed beginning in the 1920s; but when heavy rain would deluge the system, relief points called outfalls would release flow into the environment to prevent back-ups. These releases are called combined sewer overflows, and they still occur to this day.
In the 1970s, overflows release more than 9 billion gallons a year into the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. With significant investment and improvements, that volume was cut in half by the early 2000s.
In order to meet federal obligations, we committed to Project Clean Lake which will prevent another 4 billion gallons from reaching Lake Erie upon completion in 2036.
This program features the construction of seven deep storage tunnels designed to capture flow and slowly release it to our plants for treatment rather than allowing it to discharge to the environment.
To make this possible, all three of our treatment plants are being improved to handle the increased flow.
But beyond traditional concrete solutions, we are finding green opportunities, too.
One way to reduce combined sewer overflows is to lessen the volume of stormwater entering the combined system. Green infrastructure is allowing us to do that.
Our consent decree featured a commitment to green infrastructure that had not been seen in such agreements before, and we set out to find opportunities where green made sense and had an impact reducing combined sewer overflow volumes.
Several projects have been implemented and we continue to evaluate their success to determine additional opportunities moving forward.
Regional stormwater management
Streams tributary to the Cuyahoga River affect its health. By addressing regional stormwater system problems like flooding, erosion, water quality and maintenance, we can protect the health of the receiving waters downstream.
Our Regional Stormwater Management Program advances projects to address these regional stream problems that extend beyond a single community’s city limits. By thinking about problems regionally, and by promoting personal responsibility and on-site stormwater management, solutions can be strategic and more holistic to benefit the region and residents alike.
Our three treatment plants clean nearly 200 million gallons of water every day. This reality protects the Cuyahoga River and improves the life of those in and around it.
Our employees take their work and our mission seriously. From our operators and investigators, to our analysts and engineers, every face of our organization focuses their sights on a Great Lake and a cleaner Cuyahoga River.
Proper disposal of pharmaceuticals
Some adults remember the days when it was common to flush old pharmaceuticals down the toilet. That way, they were gone without the risk posed by just disposing of them in the trash. But flushing your meds poses other problems.
Flushing pills down the toilet can be a water quality issue because wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove pharmaceuticals from the wastewater. Those medications could affect the environment and endanger public health.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration regularly offers its National Take Back Initiatives, where secure collection events round-up your unused medications to be incinerated safely. But you don’t need to wait until then: Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District offers year-round recommendations, including the County Sheriff’s RX Drug Drop Box Program at local law enforcement agencies. The District also hosts “Pitch Those Pills!” safe drop-off events for unused pharmaceuticals.
While researchers have no definitive evidence of human health risk directly related to flushing unused medications, the Sewer District has found education can help reduce this source of potential contamination. Especially since pharmaceuticals in wastewater is not a new issue. We have researched and monitored trends dating back to the mid-1990s and have been involved in state and national dialogue ever since. We will continue to be active in all pharmaceutical wastewater-treatment research and seek the best solutions to address any health and environmental concerns.
Attention to algal blooms
Lake Erie has suffered severe algal blooms for a number of recent summers, resulting from rising levels of phosphorus and agricultural runoff entering the shallowest of Great Lakes.
We are committed to monitoring conditions during the recreational season to protect public health, and we continue to be involved in dialogues at the state and national levels to seek long-term solutions.
Local sewer system improvements
Similar to a tributary stream’s impact on its receiving waters, a local sewer system issue can impair the regional system to which it is connected.
We are in the midst of several local sewer system evaluation studies in order to better understand the local sewer systems that connect to our interceptor network. By identifying local problems and their sources, we can recommend and advocate solutions at the local level, thereby protecting water quality and public health within individual communities as well as the regional sewer system, Lake Erie, and the Cuyahoga River.