Two Great Lakes tributaries on the road to recovery

Recent announcements by officials in Ohio and New York provided striking evidence that parts of the Great Lakes are recovering from a toxic waste hangover that plagued North America’s freshwater seas for much of the 20th century.

Government officials recently announced that most fish in Ohio’s Ottawa River are now safe to eat; the river was declared safe for swimming in 2010.

In New York, officials announced that the Buffalo River may be safe for swimming by 2017.

Ongoing efforts to clean up the Buffalo River could make the river safe for swimming by 2017.


Those developments illustrated how far the lakes have come since the 1960s, when industrial pollution and municipal sewage discharges caused several Great Lakes rivers to catch fire; some rivers were declared dead.

The Buffalo River caught fire in 1968, three years after scientists declared it dead. Now the river is a centerpiece of efforts to revitalize Buffalo’s downtown and waterfront.

“The Buffalo River has become a national success story in its remarkable recovery since being declared dead in 1965,” said Jill Jedlicka, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper director of ecological programs. “The recovery includes environmental, recreational and economic revitalization efforts that are being implemented by a variety of community groups and agencies.”

The Ottawa River in Toledo was off-limits to swimmers and anglers for two decades. That changed after a $47 million cleanup removed nearly 300,000 tons of toxic mud from the river bottom.

That project improved water quality in the river and reduced contaminant concentrations in fish.

The recovery of these rivers, along with several others around the Great Lakes, are dramatic proof that we can remedy environmental sins of the past.

Although the Great Lakes today are far healthier than in the 1960s, much work remains. There are still 42 toxic hotspots (Areas of Concern) around the lakes, cities discharge tens of billions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into the lakes each year; invasive species are wreaking havoc on the lakes’ ecosystems; and stormwater runoff from farms and urban areas remains a major source of pollution.

The road to fully restoring the ecological health of the Great Lakes is long and and challenging. It helps to occasionally look up from the trenches of Great Lakes restoration and smell the proverbial roses.

Rivers that were declared dead a half-century ago now support healthy fish populations; waters that once burst into flame will soon be safe for swimming. Ecosystem recovery doesn’t get much more dramatic than that.

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