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Cuyahoga River
intro-watershedNE Ohio Watershed Map
  The Cuyahoga River Watershed drains 812 square miles of Geauga, Portage, Summit, and Cuyahoga Counties. “Cuyahoga" is a blend of several native peoples' names for the river and is translated to mean "crooked river." The headwaters of the Cuyahoga River are in Geauga County almost 30 miles straight east of its mouth where it empties into Lake Erie just west of downtown Cleveland.
  The Cuyahoga River drains an area less than three percent of the land area in Ohio, but supports nearly fifteen percent of its population.

  The entire 100-mile-long stretch of the U-shaped Cuyahoga River has been designated under the American Heritage River Initiative.

Like most of the rivers in Northeast Ohio that empty into Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga River was formed by glaciers advancing and retreating. When the final retreat occurred 10-12,000 years ago, the glacier scooped the land and caused changes in the drainage pattern near Akron which resulted in the south-flowing Cuyahoga precursor to turn north and create the U-shape we see today. As the Cuyahoga River found its way to Lake Erie, it had to flow around glacial debris left by the receding ice sheet.

Over thirty-seven named tributaries, not including the unnamed streams and headwaters, makeup the natural network of the river system and travel 286 miles into the Cuyahoga. Of these, Tinkers Creek, being 28.2 miles long and draining an area 96.4 miles, is the longest tributary in the Watershed.

Explore the Cuyahoga River Watershed!
 
Another tributary is Slipper Run. Falling an average of 188.3 feet per mile, it has the steepest elevation and is the shortest direct tributary at 2.3 miles in length. The only tributary that runs past a rainforest is Big Creek, the most-heavily used of the gems in Cleveland Metro Park's emerald necklace. Some other tributaries are the Little Cuyahoga River, an urban river, and Breakneck Creek which is judged to have some of the best drinking water in the country.

Protected lands within the watershed are managed by Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Geauga Park District, Portage County Parks, Metro Parks, Serving Summit County and Cleveland Metroparks as well as numerous township, village and city parks

 


 

In addition, there are several state parks (Nelson, Kennedy Ledges, Punderson, Tinkers Creek), state nature preserves and lands protected by the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands in the watershed. The City of Akron also owns and manages approximately 19,000 acres of land in the Cuyahoga River watershed, including four reservoirs used to temporarily store runoff water. The land and the reservoirs provide significant natural habitat for many species of plants, animals, insects and other species.



When debris and flammable materials on the river’s surface caught fire in 1969, it was the last time. The infamous picture of the Cuyahoga River burning caused a spark to the environmental movement that spurred on the development of legislation to restore and protect the nation’s waters (the Clean Water Act). The river had burned numerous times over the years beginning in the 1860s.

Portions of the Cuyahoga River basin in the lower and middle reaches were included in two 1996 designations: the Ohio and Erie Canal Corridor was the nation's Seventh National Heritage Corridor and Ohio's first Scenic Byway.


 

from the Cleveland Memory Project



  Upper Cuyahoga River

The landscapes in the upper reaches include forests, wetlands, pasture, and agricultural cropland. Several large reservoirs including East Branch and LaDue Reservoirs impound the river or its tributaries and serve as drinking water sources for the city of Akron and surrounding communities. These reservoirs are popular recreational destinations, too.

On June 26, 1974, approximately 25 miles of the Upper Cuyahoga River was designated a Scenic River by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, beginning at the Troy-Burton township line in Geauga County and continuing downstream to State Route 14 in Portage County.


 

Above Hiram Rapids, the river is somewhat narrow and confined to the rather straight channel constructed to improve drainage for farming around the turn of the century. The channel project was unsuccessful and this segment has become a virtual wilderness with little or no development along its shoreline. In the vicinity of the river, the topography is relatively flat, low and swampy. This extensive wetland provides excellent wildlife habitat and an abundant variety of wildflowers and plants. Willow, sycamore, elm, and buttonbush dominate the shoreline and flood plain.


 

Below Hiram Rapids, the river changes in character becoming a meandering stream of changing beauty. The topography along this stretch of the river is somewhat hilly to steep in sections. Beech and maple forests that include a variety of ash, oak and hickory trees dominate the hillsides. This area of the watershed is more developed, but still retains its natural quality.

Aquatic biodiversity in the Upper Cuyahoga is excellent. Fifty species of fish and many mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been documented. Bald eagles and ospreys are nesting in the watershed.

The Upper Cuyahoga River is also very popular for fishing and canoeing.

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Middle Cuyahoga River

The Middle Cuyahoga River travels through a more developed landscape than the upper reaches and travels through Kent, Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. The southwestern direction of the river has followed up until this point changes as the river takes a northward turn just north of downtown Akron and flows toward Lake Erie.



 

Dams and locks are predominating features in the middle stretch of the Cuyahoga River; there are a total of 7 dams on the entire river. The river is dammed north of Kent: Lake Rockwell is a drinking water impoundment for the City of Akron. A dam and canal lock in historic downtown Kent was modified in 2004 to return the river to free flowing eliminating stagnant, low dissolved oxygen and restoring fish passage. The dam at Munroe Falls was modified in 2005 to aid water quality. At Cuyahoga Falls, the Cuyahoga River drops 200 feet in 2 miles in a sandstone lined gorge. The falls for which Cuyahoga Falls was named are underwater at the 57 foot high Ohio Edison dam, the largest dam on the river.

Historically, the middle section of the Cuyahoga River watershed has been important for the development of Northeastern Ohio for centuries.
 
 
The first bridge across the Cuyahoga was built in 1803 at Brady's Leap in Kent. The development of locks and diverting water from the Cuyahoga into the Ohio and Erie Canal allowed for transportation of goods from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.

A large tract of relatively undeveloped and scenic open space, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located in the middle Cuyahoga, between Akron and Cleveland along 22 miles of the river. With 33,000 acres of land preserved along the banks of the Cuyahoga River, Cuyahoga Valley National Park includes a mix of upland forests, ravines, lush floodplains, farmed fields and the historic Ohio and Erie Canal and its towpath.


 
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Lower Cuyahoga River

As the Cuyahoga River flows into the heart of Cuyahoga County, it enters its most developed stretch. The Cuyahoga's lower river basin is one of the most densely populated and industrialized urban areas in North America. As a result of its urbanized nature, it has been changed many times over the years. In 1985, the lower Cuyahoga and the near shore areas of Lake Erie were named one of 43 Areas of Concern on the Great Lakes. Ohio EPA became responsible for developing a Remedial Action Plan to clean up this area on the Cuyahoga. In the last 20 years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by industry and government cleaning up the Cuyahoga River.








The natural depth of the Cuyahoga River ranges from 3 to 6 feet, but has been dredged to a depth of 27 feet (maintained at 23 feet deep) at its mouth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for shipping purposes. The navigational channel has not only been deepened, but also widened and straightened to accommodate shipping traffic traveling to industries along the river. 680 feet long bulk transport ships carry iron ore, limestone, and stone for steel mills and the construction industry up the river. For more information on the Great Lakes shipping history, visit the local Steamship William G. Mather Museum in downtown Cleveland.

As a result of the changes in the lower Cuyahoga River’s navigational channel, the flow of the river has been slowed. It takes water a total of 10 hours to travel the 15 miles of river upstream of the navigational channel in Cuyahoga County.




from the Cleveland Memory Project
  Once it reaches the navigational channel, the river water slows down. It takes water 10 days to travel the straightened, widened and deepened last 4.5 miles in the navigational channel. Rate of sediment deposition increases in the slowed river water, which results in further dredging to keep the navigational channel open for ships. In addition, the sediments are contaminated with PCBs and other toxics making dredging disposal more expensive. Dissolved oxygen levels are also low in the navigational channel that restricts some aquatic life in the river.

The old river channel extends to the west of the navigational channel. Since water no longer actively flows through this channel, this stretch of water is stagnant and polluted.









 

Historically, wetlands lined the banks of the lower river, but now hold industrial materials yards and the entrance to the salt mine under Lake Erie. The banks of the lower Cuyahoga River are lined with bulkheads that eliminate any functions such as shading, providing habitat, and filtering storm water that the riparian areas might have performed for the river. The Army Corps of Engineers, Cuyahoga Remedial Action Plan (RAP), and Ohio EPA studied the potential of modifying the bulkheads lining the navigational channel to create habitat for fish.

Check out this bulkhead study (pdf file).

Millions of residents living in Northeast Ohio rely on local water from Lake Erie for drinking water purchased from the City of Cleveland. The four intakes are located in Lake Erie within a nine-mile radius from the outlet of the Cuyahoga River into the lake.


 


Wastewater from millions of Northeast Ohio residents gets treated and discharged into the Cuyahoga River. Combined sewers carry both sanitary waste and storm water. Combined Sewer overflows (CSOs) (link to glossary) are outlets that dump excess water from the sewers into streams and rivers, keeping the sewers from backing up into homes, business and streets when it rains. Combined sewer overflows in older portions of the watershed add raw, untreated wastes into the river. These untreated wastes carry disease-causing pathogens, chemicals, toxic materials and excess nutrients.


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For more information on the Cuyahoga River, visit these websites:


 
    Geauga Park District
Metro Parks, Serving Summit County
Cleveland Metroparks
Cuyahoga Valley National Park


City of Akron, Water Supply Division
ODNR Scenic Rivers
Ohio & Erie Canal
American Heritage Rivers
Cuyahoga RAP

 
   

Return of the Cuyahoga By exploring this site, you will discover how and why the Cuyahoga River caught fire, learn how to identify and report polluted waterways, and explore ways in which you, your family, and your friends can influence the future health of your rivers and streams.

Cuyahoga Valley Initiative
Cuyahoga County Planning Commission and partners tapping into the Valley's potential and recognizing the opportunity which we have to make the Cuyahoga Valley a vital community, economic force, environmental treasure, and the unifying element for the region.

Great Lakes Commission is a Binational agency that promotes the orderly, integrated and comprehensive development, use and conservation of the water and related natural resources of the Great Lakes basin and St. Lawrence River.

Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports up to date environmental news and information to the Great Lakes region.

Great Lakes Information Network is a Great Lakes Commission-led collaborative project of agencies and organizations in the binational Great Lakes region to link data, information and people via the Internet.

   
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