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Nature's Biggest Comebacks

Cuyahoga River Valley and Lake Erie

Our scientists have chosen the top 10 comeback stories in nature. These are the places, ecosystems and species that have been brought back from the brink of disaster. See what made the cut from the last century – and what we hope will be on our list in the next.

Cuyahoga River Valley & Lake Erie

The Cuyahoga was once considered one of the most polluted rivers in the United States — a 1969 TIME magazine article dubbed it the river that “oozes rather than flows” after the river literally caught fire from floating debris and oil. 

“The Cuyahoga was once devoid of most aquatic life over much of its 80 miles,” says Conservancy freshwater marine scientist Jeff Opperman. 

But times have changed. While the river still needs improvement, today the water is clean, the species are back and the river itself has become a source of social and cultural value for Cleveland residents. And Lake Erie, which the Cuyahoga flows into and was also considered “biologically dead” in the 1960s, now supports the largest fishery of the Great Lakes. 

How did all this happen? 

The Clean Water Act, signed into law by President Nixon created in part due to outrage over the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, established regulations for water pollution. And land protection efforts, including the creation of a national park along the river, helped reduce development pressures that were contributing to water-quality decline. 

We might take such laws and protections for granted today, but they are the result of hard-fought battles to recognize the value of conserving nature. 

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