In the 50 years since the infamous fire on the Cuyahoga River sparked a national environmental movement, government, industry and advocates have worked together to improve the river's health.

The water quality continues to improve, bringing back native fish, birds and bugs. It’s now safe to eat fish from the river. Recreation, from kayaking to canoeing to tubing, is a favorite activity for many Northeast Ohioans.

But there’s much more work to be done, according to four panelists who spoke Wednesday afternoon on the Huntington Club Level at the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium.

The Akron Roundtable hosted the “Roundtable Xtra” discussion, “The Burning River Revival...50 Years Later and its Impact on Summit County,” moderated by WKSU news director Andrew Meyer.

“With or without our permission, the Cuyahoga River became that poster child for clean water in the world...It was bad, but now we are serving as that example for how it can be not bad,” said Bill Zawiski, environmental supervisor in the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Division of Surface Water.

The 100-mile Crooked River’s polluted history is well-known: as the Industrial Revolution boomed, companies and individuals dumped chemicals, waste and other pollutants into the water, which supported little to no life.

The river’s shipping channel near the lake caught fire at least a dozen times since the 1860s, with the fire on June 22, 1969 — Zawiski’s fifth birthday — attracting national attention that helped spark the nation's clean water movement and eventually led to the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the most significant efforts to improve the river’s water quality since then is the removal of several dams impeding its free flow, said Elaine Marsh, co-founder and conservation director of Friends of the Crooked River.

Removing dams increases the river’s velocity and turbulence and the oxygen in the water, said John Peck, a professor in UA’s geosciences department specializing in dam removal.

"It returns from stagnant essentially lakes to a free-flowing river,” Peck said.

Dams in Kent, Munroe Falls and two in Cuyahoga Falls have already come down in recent years.

The eight-foot-tall Brecksville dam, also known as the canal diversion dam or Station Road dam, is slated for removal in October with a roughly $1.3 million price tag.

The 60-foot-tall Gorge dam, built between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls in Gorge Metro Park in 1911 for hydroelectric power, is no longer functional and is slated for removal sometime in the early 2020s.

The project, which is expected to reveal the buried waterfall for which Cuyahoga Falls is named, comes with a $70 million price tag that will include removing 832,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment — including heavy metals, oil and grease — from the 1.4-mile-long dam pool.

The project is currently in the second of four phases: designing how to remove the sediment.

Challenges remain in addressing the health of the river. The four panelists listed concerns including managing stormwater, which contributes to pollution of the river, and climate change, including getting individuals and corporations to change their behavior.

But there’s still reason for optimism amidst the worry.

Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park CEO Deb Yandala highlighted the planned Cuyahoga River Water Trail, which should be in place by September with 22 access points and other infrastructure to continue encouraging paddling recreation on the river.

"I think this is a river that deserves celebrating,” she said.

Akron is in the midst of a massive $1.2 billion sewer project to stop untreated wastewater from overflowing into waterways, including the Cuyahoga River, the Little Cuyahoga and the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who spoke briefly before Wednesday’s panel, highlighted the city’s recent appearance in federal court to argue for changes that would reduce the overall cost of the sewer project while maintaining the environmental benefits of a 2014 consent decree calling for a system that keeps all sewage out of local streams and rivers.

“I think documents that you sign should have some sort of leeway in the future... We think we can get to to the cleaner water quicker and using green alternatives, and we'll continue to push for those,” he said.

Although the price tag is high, with the work funded by increased sewer rates and long-term state loans, Peck said it’s “money well-spent” because of climate change continuing to create more extreme weather conditions, including storms and flooding. Seven of the top 10 historic crests on the Cuyahoga in Summit County happened in the last 16 years, with the other three in the past 80 years.

“I'm really optimistic that, here in Northeast Ohio, people will figure out how to solve [these issues] because if we look at where we've come in the past 50 years, it's already been accomplished once,” Peck said. “Why not again?"

Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and @EmilyMills818.