The Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga River - Kent's Constant Companion

By Robert Brown (2002).


The City of Kent is facing a major decision concerning the Cuyahoga River. The following article contains several facts associated with this situation. The City administration is presenting this background information as an opportunity for citizens to become more familiar with the issues and to provide feedback by completing the attached survey.

History of the River

The Cuyahoga River was created 12,000 to 13,000 years ago near the end of the last ice age. As the mile thick Wisconsin glacier slowly receded back to the north, the tremendous pressure from the ice and resulting melt waters carved the northeastern Ohio landscape as we know it today. The earliest human inhabitants of the Cuyahoga River valley date back to approximately 9,000 BC The river was a vital resource for these early settlers, who relied on it as a wilderness travel route, hunting and fishing grounds, and a water supply. The first European inhabitants began to colonize the Kent area nearly 200 years ago. It was these early European descendants who eventually industrialized the river by constructing dams to harness the water power for the operation of various mills.

History of the Kent Dam

There were actually multiple dams constructed in the downtown Kent area, but the Kent Dam is the only one that currently remains. The original Kent Dam was built in 1836 in conjunction with the construction of the P&O canal and is historically unique in several ways. It is reported that the Kent dam is the oldest masonry dam in Ohio and is the 19th oldest masonry dam in the United States. It is the second oldest arched dam in the United States and is the only masonry dam in the country that is attached to a canal lock. Although both the dam and canal lock were severely damaged in the 1913 flood, the dam was rebuilt in 1925 to its current height and is in relatively good condition today. Underwater remnants of the canal lock also remain.

History of the Clean Water Act

In April of 1970, the entire United States became aware of the Cuyahoga River. Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes testified before a Congressional hearing on the Clean Water Act that the Cuyahoga River was on fire just a year ago. The image of the burning river was quickly adopted as a rallying symbol, not only for the Clean Water Act, but the entire environmental movement in America. After many decades of environmental neglect, Americans were finally sending a loud and clear message to Congress that water pollution must be effectively addressed. The Clean Water Act was passed in October of 1972. The objective of the Act (Public Law 92-500) is to restore the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters.

Clean Water Act - Permitting Process

The passage of the Clean Water Act charged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the responsibility of bringing all of the nation's waters into compliance with water quality standards. The EPA's first task was to develop discharge permits for all point source (pipe outlets) discharges throughout the country. Every wastewater discharge leading to a waterway would now require a permit with associated maximum contaminant levels. This involved thousands of industries and virtually every village, town, and city across the nation. It was a massive undertaking which the EPA has been fine tuning for the past 30 years.

The five-year discharge permits would essentially become more stringent at each renewal, leading the United States to the improved water quality the nation now enjoys. On the local level, the City invested in major wastewater plant improvements in 1967 ($2,400,000) and 1986 ($2,000,000 local funds and $8,000,000 federal EPA funds). The health of the nation's waterways has greatly improved and they are no longer used as open sewer pipes to carry the country's waste products to the Great Lakes and the oceans.

Clean Water Act - TMDL Process (Total Maximum Daily Load)

The authors of the Clean Water Act were confident that limiting pollution from point source discharges would go a long way in allowing the nation's degraded waterways to heal themselves. However, they also had the foresight to realize that not all of the nation's waterways would meet the new standards by only controlling point source discharges.

Many waterways were under the influence of non-point sources of pollution, such as agricultural runoff, air deposition, or hydro-modifications (i.e. man-made structures, dams, channelization), which would prevent attainment of the water quality standards. Legislators responded to this reality by including a process in the Clean Water Act called the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

The TMDL is a means for the EPA to scientifically identify, then recommend and/or mandate additional controls needed to meet water quality standards regardless of the source of the pollution impairment. It is primarily defined through a technical analysis that determines the amount of pollutants a waterway can receive and remain healthy. When these TMDL pollutant levels are exceeded, the waterbody becomes degraded.

The TMDL Comes to Kent (Along with a Permit Renewal)

In Ohio, the TMDL process remained dormant within the Clean Water Act for 26 years, waiting until such time that the point source discharges were under control. Although other states have been issuing TMDL's on their non-compliant waterways for nearly a decade, the Ohio EPA did not initiate the process until the late 1990's.

The first TMDL report in Ohio was entitled "Total Maximum Daily Loads for the Middle Cuyahoga River." This report defined the "middle Cuyahoga River" as the section of river from the Lake Rockwell reservoir to the Waterworks Park in Cuyahoga Falls. Although point source discharge control has brought much improvement to this part of the river over the last three decades, research has demonstrated that the majority of the middle Cuyahoga River remains in non-compliance with water quality standards. The report states that the components of the most viable reduction strategy are:

  • Minimum release from Lake Rockwell of at least 3.5 millions of gallons per day (MGD) of high quality water
  • Modification or removal of the Munroe Falls Dam to reduce or eliminate the dam pool*
  • Modification or removal of the Kent Dam to reduce or eliminate the dam pool*

According to the EPA report, acceptable dam pool modifications must create natural riverine characteristics and allow fish passage through the area. The alternative to this strategy is very strict and expensive permit limits imposed at the area wastewater treatment plants.

TMDL Report Takeaways

In summary, the Ohio EPA TMDL report states that this section of the river requires a more consistent flow of high quality water from Lake Rockwell and the dam pools need to be reduced or eliminated. The combination of these factors will restore a less obstructed free-flowing river, which will produce riffles, runs, and shallow pools where aeration of the river water can occur naturally and provide adequate habitat for a healthy well balanced aquatic community. In order for the City to meet the TMDL requirements, any modification of the Kent dam pool must address all three of the following criteria:

  1. Aquatic habitat - river habitat instead of dam pool habitat
  2. Dissolved oxygen - must remain above 4.0 milligrams per liter
  3. Fish passage - for migration and spawning purposes

In addition, the Ohio EPA renewed a discharge permit for the City's wastewater treatment plant. This permit establishes a compliance schedule where very stringent permit limits become effective should the TMDL recommendations (i.e. modify or eliminate the Kent dam pool) not be followed by the City. More stringent limits will require the City to consider the addition of more advance treatment at the plant, with preliminary cost estimates of $3,400,000 to $4,700,000. However, the EPA has stated that these more stringent permit limits will do little to resolve the water quality issues in the river.

The Ohio EPA states that TMDL reports are scheduled for the remainder (upper and lower sections) of the Cuyahoga River by the end of this year (2002). For more information on Ohio's TMDL program, contact the Ohio EPA website.

Kent Dam Advisory Committee (KDAC)

In response to Ohio EPA's "Middle Cuyahoga River TMDL Report" and the issuance of a new discharge permit at Kent's treatment plant, the City of Kent initiated a study called the "Kent Dam Pool Water Quality Improvement Project" in March of 2000. The study phase of the project included the creation of the Kent Dam Advisory Committee (KDAC), which consisted of a 19 member panel of interested area parties. This committee was invited to be an integral part of the study process for the purpose of insuring that all pertinent information relating to this project was discovered and made available for use to the City Administration in formulating its recommendation.

The engineering consultant (CDM), along with the assistance of the KDAC members and city administration, brain-stormed several ideas and concepts that might serve to meet the goals of the TMDL report, while also taking into consideration the historical and aesthetic aspects of the Kent dam.

This process consisted of six formal meetings, two of which were community based forums held at Kent Roosevelt High School on September 11 and October 11 of 2000. One of the highlights that came out of the KDAC meetings was a determination that Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act was applicable to the Kent dam project. This Act assures that a formal process to identify and mitigate potential adverse effects to a historical structure must occur prior to a modification or demolition project. The City, in conjunction with the U.S. EPA, is currently in the initial stages of this process.

Kent Dam - Consultants Preferred Alternative (River Bypass)

In January of 2001, the consulting firm of CDM submitted a report to the City which was designed to:

  • Comply with the goals of the Ohio EPA's TMDL report and the new treatment plant permit requirements
  • Maintain as much of the current historic structure as possible.

They offered the preferred alternative as a bypass of the river around the east side of the dam.

This alternative will comply with all three of the TMDL criteria (aquatic habitat, fish passage, dissolved oxygen), while requiring the least amount of structural modification in the dam area. This alternative will require the removal of a concrete wall that has been placed across the old lock area on the east side of the dam. This alternative is projected to cost $1,750,000 to $2,450,000 and, as described in "Funding Sources," there appears to be grant money available for this purpose.

While bypassing the river around the dam will allow the historic dam structure to remain intact, it will eliminate the current waterfall over the dam. This alternative will include removal of the sediment that has accumulated behind the dam, which would expose the river's bedrock and produce an environment similar to the natural river downstream of the dam. This alternative will also include improved river access and the creation of a navigable river. If so desired, the City could also enlist additional investments to create a small off-line dam pool with a recirculating waterfall, with a projected cost of an additional $650,000 to $1,100,000.

Communication Efforts

In addition to the two pubic forums held in the fall of 2000, City of Kent personnel have given numerous presentations (both locally and at the state level) regarding this topic. There have been several newspaper articles printed and the Kent City Manager has publicly written about this topic on several occasions in the City Manager Newsletter and Chamber of Commerce Newsletter. During the last few years, the city administration has been discussing multiple aspects of this project with various individuals representing:

  • Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
  • City of Massillon
  • City of Ravenna
  • Kent State University Biology Department
  • Northeast Ohio Four County Regional Planning and Development Organization (NEFCO)
  • Numerous local citizens of Kent
  • Office of Congressman Tom Sawyer 
  • Office of Senator George Voinovich
  • Office of Senator Mike DeWine
  • Office of State Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin
  • Office of State Senator Leigh Herington
  • Ohio Environmental Council
  • Ohio EPA
  • Ohio Historic Preservation Office
  • Portage County Commissioners
  • U.S. Army Corp of Engineers
  • U.S. Department of Interior
  • U.S. EPA

These discussions have helped the City administration to understand the full scope of issues surrounding this project, which will ultimately assist in developing the City administration's recommendation to Kent City Council.

Funding Sources

The Ohio EPA has provided an opportunity for funding their recommended river restoration goals. The City has secured a $1,250,000 grant to cover costs related to the study and design phases of the Kent Dam Pool Water Quality Improvement Project. Additional grant funding for the construction of river restoration projects may be also available from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, Ohio Public Works Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Clean Ohio Fund.

The Kent wastewater treatment plant permit indicates that if the City chooses not to modify the Kent dam pool then the Ohio EPA will issue more stringent permit limits, even though it is known that the environmental benefits to the river will be minimal. There are also no known funding opportunities (i.e. grants) available for the construction of wastewater plant infrastructure improvements. It is likely that Kent's sewer customers would have to pay the full cost of improvements at the Kent wastewater treatment plant through higher sewer utility bills.

What Other Communities Are Doing

Akron - Lake Rockwell

In 1998, the City joined Portage County, Ravenna, Munroe Falls, Cuyahoga Falls and Silver Lake in filing legal action against the City of Akron concerning the lack of flow (and quality of flow) being released from Lake Rockwell. The legal judgment from this case is currently going through the appeal process in the 11th Appellate Court of Appeals.

Based upon a long history of several "no flow days" through the Lake Rockwell dam and responding to pressure from the Ohio EPA and downstream users, Akron entered into a 1998 agreement with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to release a minimum of 3,500,000 gallons per day from Lake Rockwell dam. There is, however, no guarantee of this flow during severe drought conditions. Over the past few years, it has been reported that the water released from Lake Rockwell has been greater than 5,000,000 gallons per day.

Also, through consultation with the Ohio EPA, the City continues to seek additional requirements to be placed upon the Lake Rockwell water release to monitor water quality.

Munroe Falls Dam

Although the Munroe Falls dam is currently owned by Sonoco Products Company, Summit County has taken the lead role in the study/design phases of the project. Summit County's primary interest is to protect the Fishcreek wastewater plant from being issued excessively stringent discharge permit limits, which according to the Ohio EPA will have little impact upon water quality improvement in the river. However, the Ohio EPA again has stated that if modifications to the Munroe Falls dam pool do not occur, the only alternative is to issue more stringent limits at the treatment plants. Since the Kent wastewater treatment plant discharges into this dam pool under Ohio EPA's regulatory authority, the City has a direct interest in the success of this project.

Summit County recently held a public meeting where it announced that its preferred alternative for the Munroe Falls project is lowering the dam from 12 feet to 6 feet. This would reduce the size of the associated dam pool, which would simultaneously increase the velocity (speed of flow, not flow volume) of the water in the section of the river and improve aquatic habitat. The exposed river banks would be re-vegetated and a series of step pools would be designed on the south side of the dam to accommodate fish passage.


The wastewater treatment plants owned by Kent, Ravenna, Portage County and Summit County have permit limits that require the water that is discharged into the river to be of good quality. However, the middle Cuyahoga River still does not meet water quality standards as dictated by the Clean Water Act. If Kent chooses not to respond to the Ohio EPA recommendations to improve water quality, the state can (and will) issue more stringent permit limits to all the wastewater treatment plants in this area. However, the agency also understands that it will be costly to local communities to install additional treatment infrastructure (no grant money available) and it will have a relatively insignificant benefit to the river's water quality.

More stringent permit limits at the plants can also be potentially restrictive to new growth in the area. Once stringent permit limits are issued, it is very difficult to get them relaxed. While a potential benefit of choosing the "do nothing" option is that there will be no changes in the area surrounding the historical Kent dam, the downside of this option may result in increased utility bills, while still not meeting water quality standards in the river.

On the other hand, the Ohio EPA acknowledges that the goal of meeting water quality standards in this section of the river is being severely hindered by the existence of dam pools. This is the reason why they are recommending the modification or elimination of the Kent and Munroe Falls dam pools in the middle Cuyahoga River.

The modification or elimination of these dam pools will provide a much greater benefit to the overall health of the river than issuing more stringent permit limits at the wastewater treatment plants. The majority of river restoration efforts are eligible for grant money from various sources, such as Ohio EPA grants. While there are no promises, the Ohio EPA is very confident that the modification of the dam pools will not require severely stringent permit limits, which means that municipal utility bill increases will not be excessive, and the river will meet water quality standards. The obvious downside to this option is that the area surrounding the historical Kent dam will be subject to modifications in order to comply with the water quality goals.

What Lies Ahead?

The city administration expects that the Section 106 process of the National Historic Preservation Act will be completed by early summer. The information gained through this process will be evaluated and included in the administration's recommendation to Kent City Council.

Another community based forum to discuss the Kent dam project has been tentatively scheduled for April 29th at the Kent Roosevelt High School Auditorium. The purpose of this meeting is to present information to citizens who wish to learn more about the public policies that are causing the City to seriously analyze the water quality problems being caused by the Kent dam, and to afford residents with another opportunity to share their views on possible solutions. Further details of the meeting will be provided as more information becomes available.

The Kent Dam Project is obviously a complex issue that deserves ample public discussion. It is the City's hope that the information provided herein will be useful in understanding these complexities, so that informed decisions can be made.