TransformSustainability agenda › Clean water

We are water

We are water beings. Our bodies are mostly water, and at every moment we are exchanging water molecules with the surrounding environment. Indeed, we have a more intimate relationship with our local lakes and streams than with any person.

As people of the Great Lakes, we are also stewards of the largest bodies of freshwater on the planet — a global resource of incalculable value. In many ways, our legacy will be determined by how well we care for water.

We have come a long way in the past 40 years, and we are committed to doing even better in the future. We will celebrate water and be an example to the world.

Mouth of the Cuyahoga River before the Clean Water Act<br />Modern environmental regulations have greatly reduced industrial pollution, but we are still a long way from healthy and sustainable water resources. Edgewater Beach, Cleveland Lakefront State Park<br />Swimming at Lake Erie beaches without fear of bacterial pollution from sewer overflows should be a basic goal. Student naturalists<br />Every kid should be able to wade in streams and discover all the life -- fish, insects, mussels -- in a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Fishing at Gordon Park<br />A good indicator of the sustainability of our water resources is whether Lake Erie fish are safe to eat without restriction. Rocky River<br />The Cleveland Metroparks projects much of the Rocky River stream corridor, but stormwater runoff and development outside the park damage the river.Grand River tributary<br />One on the best ways to guard water quality is to protect fragile headwater streams, such as this creek flowing through the Grand River Terraces Preserve of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Creating a culture of water<br />Events like the Burning River Fest at the Old Coast Guard Station help to raise awareness of the importance of water.

Goals for water

Water is the miracle solvent. It wants to mix and wash and cleanse the world. So we have a never-ending struggle to keep water clean.

In the past 40 years of environmental regulation, we have made great progress in restoring major water resources, such as Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. However, old problems from excessive nutrient pollution—algae blooms and dead zones—are reappearing in the lake. And there are old and new problems from hazardous chemicals in water, such as mercury, chlorinated toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In addition, many of our remaining pristine streams are now being degraded as development sprawls over the countryside and increases stormwater runoff in the upper reaches of watersheds.

To have a healthy lake and streams in the long run, here are key goals on which to focus:

  • Swimming without worry: We should be able to swim in Lake Erie without worrying about getting sick from bacteria or toxic algae. This will require addressing the agricultural and urban stormwater runoff and the combined sewer overflows that pollute the lake when it rains.
  • Every kid in a creek and in the lake: Every child should be able to connect with nature by wading in a neighborhood creek. Streams should be daylighted where they are currently buried as sewers, restored and made safe for contact. Public access to major rivers and Lake Erie should be greatly expanded. And more recreational activities should be developed to get people out on the water. 
  • Eat the fish fearlessly: The fish advisories that recommend limiting consumption of certain kinds of fish should be made relics of the past. The sources of toxic chemicals that accumulate in fish—including power plant air pollution, leaking waste dumps, river sediment laden with industrial pollutants, and pesticides—should be cleaned up.
  • Healthy flow: The health of a stream depends as much on water quantity as on quality. So we need to work throughout watersheds to restore the wetlands, forests and pervious soils that retain and moderate the flow of water. Retrofitting the landscape to manage stormwater and maintain hydrology also will help reduce flooding and make streams less vulnerable to the storms and droughts of climate change.
  • Healthy aquatic habitats: Water cannot be separated from aquatic habitats throughout a watershed. It's an interconnected system of water, land, plants and animals. The key is to step back from the water's edge and make room for natural processes. By protecting wetlands, river corridors, flood plains, and shorelines, we care for water and biological diversity—and reduce the risk of damage to human structures. This will require every community to enact and enforce best practices for development near water.
  • Practice precaution to prevent future problems: It’s not easy to clean up water pollution, so it pays to be cautious about the chemicals released into the environment. This is especially true about slow-moving groundwater. An industry based on injecting chemicals into the ground, such as hydrofracturing for oil and gas, should receive careful scrutiny indeed.
  • Resilience: Aquatic systems are dynamic and ever changing. So our vision of water sustainability cannot be fixed; sustainability is an ongoing process. We need to foster conditions where nature has the capacity to respond to disturbances while maintaining the funtions that support our lives. So our thinking must be creative, flexible and focused on anticipating the future. 
  • A culture of water: As people of a Great Lake, we should do much more to be conscious of water, celebrate water, revere water.

You can help

You can help reach the above goals by getting involved in the water programs and policy initiatives described here. Everyone has a role to play, and everyone benefits when we care for water. 

What else needs to change? Contribute your ideas here. And start thinking about special initiatives that can happen in 2015, which will be the Sustainable Cleveland celebration year of water.


Thanks to those below who helped us think about what it really means to be sustainable with water resources for the current version of this page: 

Amy Holtshouse Brennan, Chagrin River Watershed Partners
Linda Butler, Photographer
Kirby Date, Cleveland State University
Fran DiDonato, Alliance for Water Future
Kyle Dryfuss-Wells, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District
Bob Gardin, Friends of Big Creek
Wendy Kellogg, Cleveland State University
Joseph Koonce, Case Western Reserve University
Tom Morley, Lube Stop
Jan Rybka, Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District
Peter Whiting, Case Western Reserve University
Betsy Yingling, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Updated 2/3/2013

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