A few years ago, Elaine Marsh was leading a group through Gorge Metro Park in Cuyahoga Falls when a couple of young men stopped and asked how long “this” had been there.
Marsh assumed they meant the observation deck they were standing on and told them it was built a year or two before.
But the men said she misunderstood and pointed toward the Cuyahoga River and the roaring falls that cascade over rocks.
Marsh was dumbfounded. The men had never seen the Cuyahoga River even though it and its falls were the city namesake: Cuyahoga Falls.
Marsh — co-founder of Friends of the Crooked River and Summit Metro Parks watershed specialist — has been working on clean water issues in Northeast Ohio since her college days at Kent State University in the late 1960s.
“Water quality isn’t just about chemistry,” she said Saturday during a talk at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in downtown Akron.
“It’s about the public health, the public quality of life, public enjoyment.”
Seeing rainbow trout swim the Cuyahoga River now or liveries and breweries popping up on its shores was inconceivable when she was a girl, said Marsh, who is in her 70s.
She remembers her mom telling her not to touch the water. The Cuyahoga River then ran orange and different shades of yuk depending on the industries leaking and dumping industrial waste and chemicals into it.
When Marsh was a teen, she worked one summer at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and learned that every night at 5 p.m., people in downtown Cleveland closed their windows or fled. That’s because workers at the city dump — on Lake Erie’s shore and next to the old Municipal Stadium — would light that day’s garbage collection on fire, unleashing fetid clouds of smoke over the city.
Marsh’s own environmental epiphany came during a camping trip to Minnesota when she could dip a cup into one of the pristine lakes there and drink the water with impunity.
Meanwhile, in 1969, the surface of the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The river had caught fire at least a dozen times before, starting in 1868. But this blaze turned the nation’s attention to one of the dirties rivers in the United States.
Congress, spurred in part by the fire, took action and passed legislation that helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which led to the Clean Water Act of 1972.
The Cuyahoga River’s ongoing rebirth has taken decades and costs billions of taxpayer dollars. Akron and Cleveland residents, for instance, feel the pinch with every water or sewer bill, as they pay more now to fix errors of the past.
Some of that money is now being used to remove remaining dams that have hurt the water quality of the river and made it dangerous to use.
Early settlers first built dams to grind grain and transport goods to Lake Erie and the Ohio River. The dams, among other things, trap toxins, prevent fish from swimming and create dangerous undertows, Marsh said.
Kent’s dam was the first to come down on the Cuyahoga River in 2006. Since then, dams in Munroe Falls and Cuyahoga Falls have been removed.
This summer, she said, the Brecksville dam is coming down.
In coming years, the Gorge dam is slated to be demolished, too.
The 400-foot-wide, 60-foot-tall concrete barrier was built in 1914 to produce hydroelectric power, but it never worked.
“It stands, like a sentinel of past, obscuring the Cuyahoga [River]’s promise and obstructing the economic destiny of River’s Gorge area in the City of Cuyahoga Falls,” Marsh’s Friends of the Crooked River says on its website.
Only two people turned up Saturday for Marsh’s talk — a Beacon Journal/Ohio.com reporter and a man hoping to improve in Akron’s Summit Lake.
Yet Marsh wasn’t discouraged. She said she’s witnessed so many people and organizations working together, she’s hopeful for the future.
“Everyone talks about how fantastic [the Cuyahoga River] is now. It’s taken 50 years,” she said, “one lifetime … to turn a dead system into a living, breathing system.”
Amanda Garrett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettabj.