Watershed: Advocates Look to a Brighter Future for Lorain's Black River

Jun 25, 2019

Ohio’s urban waterways were once seen as common sewers for industry and growing populations.

But a fire in 1969 on the Cuyahoga River sparked new ideas of how a river can serve its region.

In kicking off our series, Watershed, WKSU is examining three Northeast Ohio rivers, and the relationships they have with the communities that rely on them.

WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair explores the ongoing transformation of the Black River.

The Black River is wide at its mouth, with parallel banks encased by metal bulkheads.

It’s an industrial river, but there is wildlife, like a hissing pair of geese guarding the entrance to the yacht club marina.

They don’t deter Kathryn Golden, storm water manager for the City of Lorain.

Kathryn Golden is storm water manager for the City of Lorain and part of the team guiding the Black River's recovery.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

She’s showing off a new addition to the harbor, half-moon structures bolted to the river bank.  They’re called fish shelves, slotted drums extending deep into the water. They provide hiding places for fish moving up and down the shipping channel. 

“Fish habitat is a problem in industrialized rivers because there’s no natural refuge for those fish,” says Golden.

She says last year’s $2.5 million renovation of the inner harbor, including the fish shelves, is part of the final phase of the plan to bring the Black back to life.

“We’ve done what we can to improve water health," says Golden, "and now we need to put back the habitat so they can live here and they can come back.”

Healing the 'river of tumors'
Decades of clean-up efforts now lure lake fish back into what was known in the 1970's and 80’s as ‘the river of tumors’.  Not a good name for a river, especially if you own a bait shop.

Grumpy’s Bait is nestled next to a boat ramp a mile up river from the harbor.  That’s where we meet Robert Fowler. His Grumpy nickname  doesn’t seem to fit him anymore either, as he cheerfully relates highlights of the Black's recovery.

He says fishing the Black River in the 70’s was not for the faint hearted.  “I can remember pulling them out of the river here," says Fowler. "They'd have a tumor on them, or just so mushy, they felt like dough.”

Robert Fowler, otherwise known as Grumpy, is owner of Grumpy's Bait Shop, just south of Lorain harbor. He's an advocate for branding the city as a camping and fishing destination. Lorain has recently hosted several large scale fishing tournaments.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

A century of steel production had poisoned the water.

But by the late 1990’s pollution control efforts at the US Steel and Republic plants, along with massive dredging and habitat restoration projects had helped turn the tide in the Black’s recovery.

The river of tumors has become the river of delicious walleye, and Grumpy says serving the flood of fishermen drawn to Lorain could be a new economic driver.

“A lot of us feel recreation could bring just as much to the city as industry,” he says.

Loco Yaks and clean water
Stephanee Koscho, is co-founder of Loco Yaks, the Lorain County Kayaking club, with her husband Robb.

She says, “If you have a healthy river, you have a healthy community, and if you have a healthy community you have a healthy economy. So it all comes together…”

The Koscho's rent kayaks for river and lake excursions. But that’s not all they do.

The couple has been a catalyst for a new vision for the waterway.

Stephanee Koscho holds a dress made from recycled materials, part of a recent fundraiser/fashion show she helped organize. Her group, Loco Yaks has been a catalyst in building a new appreciation for the Black River as an economic resource.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

It started when they organized the first ever Black River cleanup in 2013. “We hoped we’d get 20 of our friends to come out," says Koscho, "and 250 people showed up. We pulled 6.5 tons of trash off the river and off the banks.”

And now she says the rebounding river is breathing life into a struggling city.

“It kinda turned into a movement and now we’ve got everything changing, the revitalization of downtown, the rebuilding of the economy along the river.”

Slag mountains
But the Black River is not in the clear yet.

Just south of downtown sits US Steel’s sprawling Lorain tube mill complex and the idled Republic plant.

That’s where we meet A.J. Gutz, an environmental engineer with Coldwater Consultants.

The firm has come up with a fix to the largest remaining source of pollution, piles of legacy slag and steel mill byproducts.

“There are many mountains,” says Gutz, who estimates that 10,000,000 cubic yards of black slag are piled here.

A.J. Gutz is an environmental engineer with Coldwater Consultants which has designed a plan to cover the slag mountain behind him with soil and vegetation to prevent polluted runoff.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

And every time it rains, he says, water seeps through those mountains and comes out the bottom laden with heavy metals, lye, and other pollutants. 

Gutz points to a milky stripe draining into the river. “You can see some of coloration at the toe of that slag pile...”

He says it would cost $50 million or more to haul away the mountains.

Instead, for a tenth that, his firm has plans to cover them with soil and vegetation.

“Our project will be working on about 30 acres of the material here to try to cap and cover it and prevent the infiltration of rainfall,” says Gutz.

He expects the green cap on the slag mountain to be finished by fall.

It marks the final step in the restoration and beginning of a brighter future for the Black River.

The Black River watershed includes three branches of the Black River, a 52 mile West Branch, a 45 mile East Branch and the 15 mile Main Branch.
Credit OHIO DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES