Twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River flow through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We are frequently asked whether visitors can canoe or kayak in the park. Our answer has been that we do not recommend river recreation due to poor water quality and lack of formal access points for paddlers. However, we are slowly working to change the answer to “Yes.” The park’s new trail plan, completed in 2013, identifies a goal of establishing safe recreational use of the Cuyahoga River.
As a first step in implementing safe recreation, the National Park Service has been working with the United States Geological Survey’s Ohio Water Science Center to improve public information about water quality. This summer, you can find the water quality information online at the Ohio Nowcast website, While water quality information about the river has been available at this website for a few years, 2014 is the first year that information is posted daily through an automated system. Lake Erie beach information is also available on the site.
To understand Ohio Nowcast, it helps to understand today’s water quality issues. Aging sewer systems pose the biggest current risk for river recreation. Many older sewers have combination pipes that carry waste water to a treatment plant and storm water directly to waterways. During heavy rains, storm and waste water mix in the combination pipe, causing untreated sewage to flow into waterways. To determine water quality impacts, scientists measure levels of escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacterium that indicates the presence of fecal matter in the water.
As communities work to improve sewer systems, water quality has improved. In fact, E. coli levels in the river sometimes meet standards for recreation. However, water quality changes rapidly since poor water quality is tied to heavy rains. Frequent water quality tests that provide immediate results are needed for accurate information.
This is where Ohio Nowcast comes in. Its name reflects its goal of providing information that is current. The invented word “nowcast” is contrasted with the word “forecast.” While a nowcast is current information, a forecast is a prediction of future conditions.
The Cuyahoga River Nowcast information comes from a USGS gauging station in Brecksville. However, the gauge does not measure E. coli directly. Instead, it records water temperature, depth, and turbidity. The latter is a measure of the amount of sediment suspended in the water. It increases when heavy rain adds sediment to the river and stirs up the water.
This data is uploaded from the gauge automatically each morning to the website. A computer model then generates an estimate of E. coli levels. When viewing the data, it is important to recognize that it reflects information from one river location at one point of time in the day.
Years of data collection have gone into creating the model that uses easy-to-collect data to determine E. coli levels. The model, however, must be validated as conditions around the river change. Validation occurs by comparing the E. coli estimates to actual levels.
This summer, the USGS-NPS partnership is testing an easier approach to the validation process. The person conducting these tests is intern Yeyzy Vargas. While you are visiting the park, you might see her actively doing applied science. Vargas is part of the Mosaics in Science Program, sponsored by the NPS in partnership with the Geological Society of America. The program’s goal is to increase the number of youth working in science, technology, engineering and math projects in national parks.  Vargas graduated from the University of Illinois in May with a bachelor’s degree in biological science and a minor in earth and environmental science.
Vargas has been working since May collecting water samples near the gauging station. She also collects water samples at Lock 29 in Peninsula so we can have water quality data for that site. She then tests the samples with a long-established and new method. Both take 24 hours for results, so do not meet the criteria for a real-time data. The new method, however, is less complicated and time consuming, making it more feasible for the park to continue it into the future.
Nowcast results this year show that water quality testing alone will not allow daily use of the river. In June, frequent heavy rain meant that water quality on the Cuyahoga River in Brecksville met standards for recreation on only seven days. However, planning for river recreation is taking a hopeful view that continued improvements to sewer systems will lead to a better future. Vargas describes this hope through her motivation to pursue the internship. “The quality of water can determine a lot about the health of our environment. Water means life and it’s important to have clean water to maintain health in our communities,” Vargas said.
Editor’s note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. NPS intern Arielle Campanalie contributed to this story.