A Crooked River Conversation
And then it happened. Sparks off a bridge in Cleveland’s Flats ignited the Cuyahoga on June 22, 1969 for the 15th time. This time, people had had enough. The fire, though rather small by previous fire standards, fueled an outcry so incendiary it created the Clean Water Act, the EPA, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Great Lakes protection measures and cleanup efforts nationwide.
The fire formed part of the legacy of Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother, U.S. Representative Louis Stokes, who fought for clean water accountability and legislation. Finally, the chokehold of hundreds of years of uncurbed water, air and land pollution would lessen. And the river would gain a chance to heal.
For the last seven years, alumnus Peter Bode (Environmental Science ’12), of West Creek Conservancy has been a water warrior, playing a key role in leading the river and lake to ever-improving health. This year he’s also managing the Cuyahoga River’s milestone birthday, Xtinguish. Fifty years since the fire, the river has become a national symbol of renewal and hope, though it, like Cleveland, is still a too-easy target of jokes. Bode is working to change that, too.
How did you come by your passion for healing the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie?
“My dad spent his career in wastewater management, is now a Class 4 operator and assistant superintendent, and develops and teaches courses for those looking to gain their certification. He began his career with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. His whole career has been focused on healthy people and waterways.
“There were many other motivations as a kid. I grew up in North Royalton in a house next to the Cleveland Metroparks. So getting outside in nature was second nature!”
In his early career, Bode worked as a professional landscaper, touring musician and songwriter for six bands. He designed gardens and waterfalls and became a native plants expert. He earned a degree in recording arts from Cuyahoga Community College. Then he suffered a serious back injury while on a landscaping job and was bedridden for months. “I knew then,” he says, “this was my opportunity to follow the path I knew I was meant to follow.”
CSU beckoned in 2010 with its Environmental Science program in the College of Sciences and Health Professions.
How did CSU help you find your new career?
”I knew CSU’s reputation and many graduates who were working in the Sewer District, Cleveland Metroparks and locally. Dean Meredith Bond was always helpful and a mentor. I was active in faculty research; Dr. Michael Walton’s lab had an opening and I joined, researching vegetation on urban lots throughout Northeast Ohio. Then the U.S. Forest Service provided funding to assess urban lots and analyze vegetation for the ecological design of all Cleveland neighborhoods, where I created a sampling method that coincided with the graduate research within that lab.
“Dr. Julie Wolin was the advisor for the Student Environmental Movement, of which I became president. We grew from 10 to 750 members across campus in multi disciplines, including business, education and urban affairs. I joined the NET Impact and American Planning Association student groups, and became a student representative to the Faculty Senate.
“When I graduated, I thought, where can I have the most impact? Answer: the Cuyahoga!”
Bode joined Cuyahoga River Restoration, where he wrote the 2015 Remedial Action Plan for the river that was adopted by the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern overseen by the Ohio EPA. He helped leverage millions of dollars to restore fish habitat, stabilize river banks, improve water quality and more.
After five years, he joined West Creek Conservancy as Central Lake Erie project manager in Cleveland. West Creek’s executive director saw an additional role for Bode – providing technical expertise for a regional collaborative, as well as helping to foster strategic partnerships.
The Central Lake Erie Basin Collaborative (CLEB) now comprises 17 regional watershed organizations, from Sandusky to Conneaut. The group has leveraged millions of dollars in resources to restore wetlands, reduce flooding, improve water quality and plan for the future across the region. In addition to CLEB’s successes, Bode and West Creek Conservancy are actively involved in the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern and act as fiscal and administrative leads for the Cuyahoga River Water Trail Partnership.
And then Xtinguish was born. How? This combination of teamwork, leadership, knowledge and experience created a natural opportunity for Bode and his colleagues to create a regional celebration along all 100 river miles.
What do you hope to achieve with Xtinguish?
“Xtinguish has grown into a regional effort with more than 350 community partners, including museums, colleges, environmental and community groups, and historic collaborations between Kent, Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Peninsula, Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Cleveland. Fifty years after the fire we’ll appreciate the progress made under committed stewardship and help determine the future of our communities and Lake Erie the next 50 years.
“We’ll motivate new generations of clean water stewards and share the recovery and challenges, all of which demonstrate the impact, strength and solidarity we hold as a region.”
What’s next for the Cuyahoga River?
“This year we are designating the Cuyahoga River Water Trail, which is featured as one of our Crooked River Conversations. Xtinguish celebrates the 100-mile Trail, designated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Twenty-six new public access points, many with amenities, are open for nature-watching, kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and more. The Trail provides a lasting legacy of renewal and an economic boost to the region, and celebrates the power of partnerships.
“And we’re already thinking about the future of Xtinguish!”
Bode is now a trusted and respected voice across the Great Lakes. Of many achievements, several rise to the top.
“I’m proud of the role I’ve been able to play with so many great colleagues and supporters in improving the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie,” he says. “From our progress in watershed restoration, to mapping out plans for future improvement, to bringing the region together in solidarity with the efforts of Xtinguish, I love what I do. And none of it is possible without the partnerships that have been fostered throughout this watershed I call home.”
Alumna Mary Grodek, MNAL ’15, is a local freelance writer.
Northeast Ohio marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River igniting.
Cleveland State, with its prime location near the river and Lake Erie, is joining in the celebration.
Through research, conservation and other means, CSU faculty, staff, students and alumni are focusing their energies on this most precious natural resource.
FIRE & FAME: 1969 to Today
Then: The Cuyahoga River from Akron to Cleveland was declared “dead” by national media.
Now: It boasts over 60 species of fish and is an ecotourism hub.
Then: The Navigation Channel was used as a sewer for industrial, human and toxic waste.
Now: 21 species of migratory fish live in the Navigation Channel.
Then: During early industrial booms, many dams were installed for hydroelectric power, drinking water and other uses.
Now: Dams are being removed to improve water quality, including the Kent Dam, two dams in Cuyahoga Falls, the Route 82/Brecksville Dam and Gorge Dam in Akron.
Photo Credit: Michael J. Zaremba / The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection