Sierra Club water sentinels testing water quality on Little Cuyahoga River

By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Jack (right) and Margaret O' Toole, volunteers with the Portage Trail chapter of The Sierra Club, collect water samples from the Little Cuyahoga River at Cascade Valley Park. The samples will be used to set a baseline level of how clean the water is in case of future pollution problems. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

Jack O’Toole collected a bucket of water from the Ohio & Erie Canal where it empties into the Little Cuyahoga River close to the Mustill Store near downtown Akron.

O’Toole donned blue rubber gloves and used special strips to gauge the pH, alkalinity, hardness, chlorine and nitrites in the water. He measured the temperature of the water, gauged its clarity and gathered other data with his $100 kit. His wife, Margaret, recorded their findings. They also picked up trash.

The Hudson couple are Sierra Club water sentinels, part of a growing grass-roots campaign to monitor streams across Ohio using visual and chemical parameters.

The O’Tooles are among more than 200 volunteers who have been trained and are monitoring water quality on more than 100 stream segments in Ohio, said spokeswoman Amanda Keith of the Sierra Club’s Clean Water Campaign in Columbus.

The stream testing began in 2010, at a time when there was concern, especially in eastern Ohio, that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas in the Utica shale formation was emerging as a potential threat to safe water. The program got underway in Carroll County, the No. 1 county in Ohio for drilling the horizontal wells.

Such water testing by volunteers gets people involved as citizen-scientists and empowers them to help clean local streams, Keith said.

Locally, a dozen Sierra Club volunteers are analyzing water samples at 40 locations along the Little Cuyahoga in Summit and Portage counties. Samples are collected every three months.

Asked why he got involved, Jack O’Toole, 63, a retired high school English teacher, replied: “I guess it all began when it caught on fire,” a reference to the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. “You can’t get upset if you’re not interested in doing something about it.”

More and more people are realizing that runoff, fertilizers and pesticides have a negative affect on water quality in streams, said Margaret O’Toole, 58, a retired Spanish teacher.

“Clean water is a finite resource,” she said. “Doing this is fun, and we’re outdoors. And we’ve met some incredible people.”

Her husband added, “We’ve learned a ton, too.”

Together, the O’Tooles, who enjoy paddling and biking, monitor three sites on the 17.4-mile-long Little Cuyahoga River, one of the dirtiest streams emptying into the Cuyahoga River.

Volunteer Mary Trent, 51, of Cuyahoga Falls, helps collect data at 15 sites along the Little Cuyahoga. She said she would like to see Kent State University and the University of Akron help the volunteers by identifying aquatic fish and bugs from the stream.

Measuring bacteria in the stream regularly would also be helpful, Trent said.

Akron’s combined sewers cause problems for the stream, but it has problems even before it reaches Akron because of heavy urbanization and failing septic systems that hurt water quality, Keith and Trent said.

The Little Cuyahoga fails to meet federal standards of being fishable and swimmable.

“With just one year of data we cannot conclude where the pollution comes from or why,” Keith said.

The Little Cuyahoga River drains 61.7 square miles. It begins in the Mogadore Reservoir, Springfield Lake and Wingfoot Lake areas. It also gets water from Summit Lake via the Ohio & Erie Canal. The stream empties into the main Cuyahoga River in North Akron.

The baseline data on the stream is being shared with the Akron-based Northeast Ohio Four County Regional Planning and Development Organization, and that is very helpful, spokesman Eric Akin said.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has done little testing on the Little Cuyahoga since 1996, and the Sierra Club tests, while basic, still provide useful data to help track patterns and pinpoint problem spots, he said.

The stream “is not pristine, but there are no major problems,” he said. “That is encouraging.”

Akin’s agency is working to develop a new, balanced growth initiative along the stream.

That will rely on an approach that is voluntary, incentive-based and relies on a regional focus on land use and development planning to protect and restore waterways. Some sensitive areas along streams might be preserved, and development will be encouraged in areas that will produce less impact on streams. Such an approach would involve local communities, zoning, economic redevelopment, land preservation, stopping urban sprawl and boosting ecological health.

Akin said a draft report is scheduled to be completed next June.

Planners are working with local communities to identify areas to be preserved and tracts to be developed, he said.

Such an approach has been used in Northeast Ohio along Furnace Run, Chagrin River, Chippewa Creek, Rocky River and Big Creek.

For information on the stream monitoring, contact Keith at 614-330-8457.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or

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