A Tale of Two Rivers – Part Two

Written by Judy Auer Shaw
Photos © Alison M. Jones

Dr. Shaw became a NWNL Advisor after our first interview conducted at Rutgers’ 1st Sustainable Raritan River Initiative in 2009:  Creating a Watershed Web. Her books on NJ’s Raritan River and Ohio’s Cuyahoga describe two rivers that have survived a legacy of abuse thanks to good stewardship. Thus, NWNL asked Judy to examine what motivates our most exemplary watershed scientists and describe how her work on these two waterbodies could spawn a third synergy for all watersheds. 

On April 22,  NWNL posted Part One of Dr Shaw’s analysis of stewardship on the Raritan and the creation of her first book: The Raritan River:  Our Landscape, Our Legacy. This Part Two examines stewardship of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. Taken together, her 2-part comparison of these 2 stewardship models presents a universal model for successful upstream-downstream watershed management.

Author Dr. Judy Shaw, celebrating New Jersey’s Raritan River

The Cuyahoga: Our Beloved Crooked River

Now living in northeast Ohio, my focus is on a different river, but one that has faced critical problems of its own. When asked if the issues were the same, the short answer is “no;” but the full answer in many ways is “yes.” The major similarity is the need for a collective view of the river and the communities along the banks. 

Route 303 bridge over the Cuyahoga River 

The Cuyahoga River, like New Jersey’s Raritan, begins in a bucolic area, with much of its land in public ownership. Burton and Hamden’s headwaters flow quietly down to their confluence and into the more urban region of the watershed. Just above the City of Kent, the City of Akron created a reservoir in the river to provide drinking water for its citizens in cases of emergency. Its protected area is fenced off from public use. This obliges those in kayaks or canoes to portage some miles around Lake Rockwell Reservoir in order to go on to Lake Erie.

From Lake Rockwell the river flows through Kent, Cuyahoga Falls, Akron and many other towns until reaching Cleveland and Lake Erie. For some 15 miles after Akron, the Cuyahoga flows through Cuyahoga Valley National Park [CVNP], created October 2000. For years, National Park Service focused almost exclusively on land management. It offered no access points for canoers or kayakers, since they worried about water quality and dangers posed by existing dams. This changed recently, as 5 of 7 major dams are now down. The CVNP is now setting up some 5 or 6 access points along its banks. In an abundance of caution, they’ve launched a campaign to fully inform paddlers of the dangers along the river, particularly limbs and other debris flowing downstream after storms.  

Canoers on the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland

Today, there are plans to take down the last of the smaller dams, the Brecksville Dam. The Gorge Dam, the greatest challenge, remains. At some 60 feet high, the Gorge Dam has been creating a sediment catchment and dam pool for over 100 years. To remove it requires major sums of money (projected to be near $70M); a removal process, and future treatment of the sediments. Thanks to a collective by the USEPA, City of Akron, Ohio EPA, CVNP, Summit Metro Parks and many environmental organizations and businesses, the Gorge Dam removal plan continues forward. The removal date is expected in 2024, all things being equal. The partners are working on a system design to move sediments from the dam to a permanent location in one of Akron’s community parks.   

How to compare these watersheds? How are they similar? How do they differ? My wish is not to pursue a rigorous academic review, but to forge new understandings of how we, individual citizens, can take a role in managing our watersheds. It’s up to each of us to find a way to be part of the solution—for ourselves and those to come in the next generations.

In the Raritan River Basin, the objective of the initiative was to rally a unified approach to the Raritan River’s watershed management. By bringing together municipal and county leaders, they could face the future collectively and not just individually. Decision-making focused solely on the reality that one community can be exponentially damaging to neighboring towns. When Town A puts in a levee to protect it from flooding, those flood waters dump into Town B and Town C, wreaking havoc on their waterfront lands and creating financial disasters for their residents. But – what if Town A buys land along the waterfront and returns it to floodplains as Mother Nature intended? Then towns A, B and C benefit — as do many others, since water streaming downstream quietly returns to the ground, rather than creating flood conditions for towns downstream along its path. So, that happened. Now leaders in municipal and county programs talk much more regularly; and they cooperate to implement strategies that work for everyone’s benefit.

At the North and South Branches confluence, the Raritan’s main stem is formed.

Also, an advisory group of environmental organization leaders now works with Rutgers teams to ensure a collective approach and keep their programs going. The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership in New Brunswick NJ has emerged as an inspiring initiator of community involvement. Their programs for river water monitoring, river cleanups, public art and other projects focus community attention on natural resources in unique ways. Thanks to the Johnson family, Rutgers has funded an endowed chair in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS), to lead the scientific research needed to maintain the river’s water quality and to focus their research efforts. The new SEBS Research Vessel moors right in New Brunswick, making it easier for students to engage in research.

The first Sustainable Raritan River Initiative, held at Rutgers University

One benefit of the initiative is more published reports on the river. When the initiative began, we found only 4 articles in scientific journals that mentioned the Raritan. Today that number has risen and continues to rise as more and more students and faculty seek publication for their research results. Another benefit is the determination by communities to restore their floodplains by moving historic buildings and businesses to safer locations. The benefit of such decisions is stronger local awareness of the values of the buildings, businesses and floodplain itself. 

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection stepped up as well as Rutgers. Focus is up considerably on the assessment of water quality in the Raritan; and efforts to revise regulations to incorporate dam removals with ecosystem restoration are moving forward. Overall, one step at a time, the initiative is changing the overall management of the watershed for the betterment of all.

Along the Cuyahoga, there is a different, but equally compelling, story. This basin is still missing the unified approach enjoyed by the Raritan River watershed. Yet, the Friends of the Crooked River (FOCR) and its leaders are highly regarded in that area. There are many efforts to ensure the river is a recognized member of its communities and involves the people — from park systems and conservancy organizations, to the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and many local leaders working closely with residents and organizations. But a regional approach is still needed to protect the river and its surrounding communities for centuries to come. If FOCR asked all involved to an annual congress to identify issues, obstacles and solutions, I believe they would find the same success those in the Raritan now enjoy.

A flooding Cuyahoga River at Kent’s Tannery Park

My observations on the Cuyahoga and Raritan Rivers – both natural resources and place of spiritual renewal – apply to many rivers across the globe and show the importance of people working together. American Rivers and the riverkeepers in Waterkeepers Alliance have had great success bringing people together. Liz Deardorff of American Rivers, and Maya Van Rossum, the Delaware River Riverkeeper, have shared with me their simple strategies used to create synergy. Liz works with rivers in West Virginia, Delaware and elsewhere. She finds folks are often uninformed on issues like stormwater management; and feels American Rivers is the best way to inform and engage directly with the public. A ‘third-party neutral’ like American Rivers can help people consider their local issues; and simultaneously can put stories into a context for regulators. Liz sees that, when informed, the public will step up and engage others. Such results are highly successful in ensuring that regulations address their concerns. 

Maya Van Rossum’s goal is for  Delaware River residents to coalesce to focus on what’s good for the river and for themselves. That’s it. It’s not about Maya, or future funding, or politics – far from it. She just does what’s good for the river. If that means funders are less likely to support Delaware Riverkeeper, so be it. Realizing not all will agree all the time, she does what is good for the river.

Mary and Liz know that when people discover their own powers of persuasion, they will step up for themselves and for their neighbors. The result is both a cleaner, healthier river and happier, healthier people. 

A barge tugboat passes a Cuyahoga River “swing bridge” under Detroit Avenue

To review how the two rivers have fared, I check referenced mentions in scientific journals. The Cuyahoga far outshines the Raritan. An initial bibliography on published data and research on the Cuyahoga, coordinated around 1996, ran 18 pages, single spaced. And there is a continued interest in all aspects of that river’s health and well-being.

The back story for both is how their watersheds’ unification efforts reached the heart and soul of their residents and business owners. The coalescence of the Cuyahoga’s communities arose from a now-renowned fire in 1969 that caught national attention. While there are still miles to go in terms of coordinated efforts to both utilize and protect that river, progress is visible in many ways. As mentioned, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park has taken a lead role to develop new access points for canoe and kayak launches. They are cooperating fully with others in the region to take down the dams that have served no purpose for many years. This year they will remove Dam #6, leaving only the Gorge Dam to tackle. That most contentious 60′ dam has accumulated masses of potentially damaging sediments in its pond. Thanks to the dedicated Ohio EPA team, plans to implement this removal project are making their way through the various federal agencies, on which the successful removal depends.

A Cuyahoga Valley National Park speaker at 50th River Burning Anniversary

One novel element in Ohio lies in the public school’s 4th-grade study of Ohio’s history and its geography. But only recently did that include field trips to local natural resources like rivers and streams. Now more teachers are keen to enhance their curriculum by taking students outside to appreciate their world firsthand. 

More new awareness is found at the Wick Poetry Center, a Kent State University home to poets, organizers and writers who write to enrich their stories and the lives of others. The Wick team shares poetry with Akron and Kent immigrants to enhance their grasp of English. Those engaged have produced some phenomenal poetry describing their lives, families, experiences – as well as their joy being part of this river-based community.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Cuyahoga River in spring flood. 

In both New Jersey and Ohio, a river and its people inspired me to create a book that would capture the joyful and challenging aspects of each river and its community. The first, The Raritan River: Our Landscape Our Legacy, was published in 2015 by Rutgers University Press. The second, The Cuyahoga: Our Beloved Crooked River, remains in editorial review at the Kent State University Press as we await the reopening of the university once our current global health crisis comes under control.

For all rivers, the goal is still to create a unified sense of both responsibility and joyful wonder in residents and visitors alike. The Raritan, Cuyahoga and all the rest of the river basins in America deserve the care that will protect them into the future. A sense of purpose is created when we together we work to protect our treasured natural resources. Let’s join river stewards, watershed organizations and No Water No Life to create more energy in our own communities by engaging ourselves with local efforts – especially where no action is taking place. We can be the catalyst for change ourselves.

The Cuyahoga River at dusk, slipping by fallen logs and wildflowers in Kent.

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