Twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River, bordered by a fertile floodplain, wind through the park. In addition to the river and its floodplain, Cuyahoga Valley National Park's aquatic resources include 220 miles of perennial streams, 1,200 wetlands, and 70 human-made ponds, all supporting a wide diversity of aquatic biota.
The Cuyahoga River, the primary aquatic resource in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, had a pivotal role in the birth of the environmental movement. The river experienced several fires, beginning in 1936 when a spark from a blowtorch ignited debris and oil on the river's surface. Although the river burned several times after 1936, it was the 1969 fire that focused attention on the state of water bodies throughout the United States. Groundbreaking environmental legislation, including the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act, followed in the early 1970s. Since the passage of this legislation, large point sources of pollution have received significant attention both locally and nationally. For its role in the environmental movement, the Cuyahoga River was designated an American Heritage River in 1998.
Although much progress has been made since the early 1970s to improve water quality in the Cuyahoga River, sections of the river remain on the list of impaired waters as established under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. Portions of the Cuyahoga River Watershed, including the section of river that travels through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, have been classified as one of the 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, necessitating the development of a Remedial Action Plan (RAP). The Cuyahoga River RAP works to plan and promote restoration of beneficial uses (e.g., fishing and canoeing) of the lower Cuyahoga and near-shore Lake Erie through remediation of existing pollution problems and prevention of future ones. Beneficial use impairments were identified in the Stage One Remedial Action Plan. Stage Two, implementation and restoration of beneficial uses, is only partially completed. Extensive research and monitoring by numerous agencies have been funded to improve understanding of water quality impairments within the watershed.
Currently, impairments to the water quality of the Lower Cuyahoga River, including portions within the park, are being addressed under the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program. A TMDL is a written, quantitative assessment of water quality problems in a water body and contributing sources of pollution. It specifies the amount a pollutant needs to be reduced to meet water quality standards, allocates pollutant load reductions, and provides the basis for taking actions needed to restore a water body. The TMDL will cover impaired river segments from the Munroe Falls Dam in Summit County (upstream of Cuyahoga Valley National Park) to the start of the ship channel in Cuyahoga County (downstream of the park). Several tributaries to the Cuyahoga River will be included as well.
The water quality of the Cuyahoga River within the park is of particular concern to park managers. The river receives discharges of storm water, combined-sewer overflows, and incompletely disinfected wastewater from urban areas upstream of the park. These discharges result in a threat to the health of visitors who come into contact with river water during recreational use (e.g., wading or canoeing). Because park managers are concerned about the threat posed to human health by sewage and pathogen contamination, the park discourages any canoeing, swimming, or wading in the river.
To address concerns of fecal bacteria contamination of the Cuyahoga River, the National Park Service is working with the United States Geological Survey to complete a study that will provide more information on concentrations of indicator organisms associated with the presence of pathogens. The park hopes to gain a better understanding of the ability of indicator organisms to predict the presence of human pathogens and, consequently, risks to human health. This information will improve our understanding of waterborne pathogen occurrence and assist the NPS in making informed decisions about when the water quality in the Cuyahoga River will be safe for recreational use in the future.