Invested, improved, renewed.
Bringing life back to our waterways started with the systems you’ve always used but rarely seen
Two fish, and algae — the only signs of life found in the Cuyahoga River according to a 1968 water quality survey.
The work we began three years later would set that river and an entire region’s stream network on a path to better health and eventual resurgence. But it didn’t happen overnight.
When the Cleveland Regional Sewer District began work in 1972, our first projects included major improvements at our treatment plants and sewer construction in the 1970s. In that decade alone, the utility set out to build the Northwest Interceptor on Cleveland’s west side (1973), a new and innovative chemical treatment process at our Westerly plant (1974), and our Cuyahoga Valley Interceptor in 1977 that would eventually serve five of our southernmost suburbs.
The result was better sewer service for customers. But environmentally, the impact was even greater.
We’ve shared that the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire was not the first river fire; industrial and urban progress plagued the river for decades prior. A 1967 television documentary narrator described the river as lifeless and dead, and the corresponding footage left little to argue.
Kent State University hosted a 1968 Cuyahoga River symposium, and as summarized in a 2001 University of Minnesota journal report by Jeff Zeitler, the panelists put the river’s dire straits into perspective:
“At its worst in 1968, the Lower Cuyahoga River supported only 2 species: Carassius auratus and Lepomis macrochirus at one sample site out of 23 and no fish at the other 22 sites. Oscillatoria algae were the only species of plant or animal found at some sites.”
Those two fish species are significant: bluegill (a pollution-tolerant fish) and goldfish (an invasive and very pollution-tolerant species). No other fish were reported found in the samples taken.
Pollution was literally suffocating life in the Cuyahoga River.
The records we have on hand from the 1970s and 1980s detailed the pollution battle we faced:
- High levels of metals in the water coming into our Southerly plant.
- Dangerously high ammonia concentrations in the Cuyahoga River downstream of Southerly.
- And the health of Cuyahoga River fish when surveys began in 1984 was far below acceptable.
All these environmental signs indicated that investing in sewer infrastructure would yield tangible improvements. And it did.
Expansive Southerly improvements in the late ’70s significantly reduced metals like lead, copper, and cadmium in the waste stream.
A new Nitrification process at Southerly in 1984 helped cut the Cuyahoga’s ammonia concentrations by almost 90 percent.
And the Crooked River’s fish health has been on an upward trend since 1984.
Not only are fish healthier, they’re more plentiful. Between 1990 and 2021, we’ve collected 72 different species of fish in the river, many of which are more intolerant of pollution.
The work of a wastewater utility has most people think, “Hey. Sewers.” But among our work’s earliest impacts? Healthier streams and a greater lake.
Our first decade of investments set a standard by which we continue to improve and protect water quality to this day.
Learn more about our 50 years of people, programs, and progress