The overarching goal of the Clean Water Act is often said to be attaining “fishable, swimmable” waters. In the U.S., we evaluate the quality of waterways by determining whether each segment of a waterway meets “uses.” As you can imagine, the categories of ways that we’d like to be able to use water can be diverse: drinking water, on-water and in-water recreation, fishing, aesthetics, industrial, habitat for aquatic life…the list goes on-and-on. Under the Clean Water Act, a specific segment of a waterway can either be in “attainment” of those uses or “impaired” or somewhere in between.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to remove a fish consumption impairment in the Cuyahoga River from the Gorge Dam in Cuyahoga Falls to Lake Erie (the “Lower Cuyahoga River”) indicating that the formerly burning part of the river now supports fish that are safe to eat. To be clear, fish consumption advisories remain on the Cuyahoga River from the Gorge Dam, but they are now the same as Lake Erie’s restrictions. Here are the current fish consumption advisories for Lake Erie and its tributaries:
The use attainment news was heralded by both the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA as a monumental step in the Cuyahoga River’s restoration, but it appears based on a comparison of the old Cuyahoga River fish advisory that not much has changed (see page 7). The new attainment status removed advisories for Common Carp (under 27”) and White Sucker (16” and over) and allows one less Common Carp (27” and over) per month than previously. PCBs and mercury were the culprits in the prior fish consumption advisory.
It’s also unclear whether the pollutants causing the impairment have been in any way reduced, mitigated or removed from the acquatic ecosystem. Mercury, for example, is known to bioaccumulate in fish tissue. The national and international focus on reducing CO2 emissions may be impacting the deposition of mercury in waterways. Perhaps the removal of dams has allowed for the movement of fish with less bioaccumulated mercury.
For PCBs, just in September of 2018, the Army Corps of Engineers and Ohio EPA released the results of sediment sampling of the Cuyahoga River and found that “PCB levels remain dangerously high.” The level of advocacy and debate around reducing the impact of PCBs in river bottom sediment has played out both around the Cuyahoga River and, more visibly, around General Electric’s PCB contamination of the Hudson River. In the case of the Hudson, GE is removing PCBs from the Hudson as opposed to the current approach in the Cuyahoga River of allowing PCB-laden sediment to settle unless dredged for navigational purposes. If fish tissue has reduced levels of either mercury or PCB’s, it’s unclear what, if anything, we should point to as the cause and effect of a reduced impact of those pollutants on Cuyahoga River fish populations. It’s simply unclear how we made such minimal progress on less mercury and PCBs in fish tissue samples from the Cuyahoga River.
While improvements to Cuyahoga River water quality deserve celebration, it’s important to realize the extent of progress made, the reasons for improvement and depth of ongoing problems continuing to cause impairment. The Lower Cuyahoga River’s aquatic life use continues to be impaired by combined sewer overflow, urban runoff/storm sewers, spills, industrial point sources, landfills, channelization, municipal wastewater treatment discharges, agriculture, septic tanks and land development and suburbanization. The pollutants causing continued impairment include metals, nutrients, ammonia, habitat alteration activities, toxicity, flow alteration and organic enrichment or low dissolved oxygen. So, I will likely take out my fly rod and celebrate the ability to safely catch and eat another carp from my beloved Cuyahoga River this spring, but the remaining impairments and sources of those impairments require that do much, much better than the status quo.