Restoration of Black River to bring people back to the water, boosting local economy

When Tom Kern gives boat tours on the Lower Black River, he notices a new feeling out on the waters of Lorain, Ohio.

“It’s fun to see change and it’s fun to see improvements,” said Kern, a master captain for the Lorain Port Authority.

Once a heavily industrialized stretch of river, the Lower Black River today is the site of $10 million in restoration work, much of it paid for by the American Recover and Reinvestment Act and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding. Passengers on Kern’s boat trips are taking notice. Many are curious about the work.

On Tuesday, Kern provided a tour to attendees of the Great Lakes Restoration Conference. They saw firsthand that where piles of steel waste once towered 60 feet above the water, a wetland habitat and flood plain has been restored. Fish shelves that were built to provide rocky refuges for larval fish could be seen easily in the unusually low river level. Trees are being planted in riparian zones.

But much of the progress being made in Great Lakes restoration around the region could face setbacks; the next President and Congress face tough decisions on the federal budget, which could lead to cutbacks in restoration funding.

Great Lakes advocates are asking Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to sign the “Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Candidate Pledge” and commit to funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and take action to separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins to protect U.S. waters from invasive species like the Asian carp. Read the full pledge at:

On the Black River, attendance on Kern’s boat trips has been particularly strong this year. That’s good news to officials in Lorain, who are hoping the restoration of the river will help regenerate the city’s economy. Much of the manufacturing industry that had fueled a boom in the city early in the 20th Century has closed. Between 1960 and 2000, the closing of the plants led to a loss of 18,000 jobs.

Vacant stores line the downtown. Unemployment is high. The use of the river for industry has left the city with a “monumental legacy” to clean up, said Kristen Risch, senior restoration specialist for Coldwater Consulting, LLC of Columbus, Ohio, the consulting company that designed the project.

City officials see cleaning up the Black River, which runs near downtown Lorain, as a way to improve their economy. By improving the ecology, they hope attract paddlers, boaters and fishers, said Risch.

Although pieces of the Lower Black River project will not wrap up until 2013, the work already has improved habitat and water quality.

Kern has turned into a champion of the project, giving his passengers a description of the restoration work as they ply the river. “We broadcast that all the way down,” he said.

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