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The Cuyahoga River Is Healthier Now, But Stormwater Still Poses A Threat

The Cuyahoga River has come a long way since the fire 50 years ago. But it still faces an environmental threat in the form of stormwater and development.  

Rainwater rolling off asphalt and rooftops can carry contaminants into the watershed. Local government agencies across Northeast Ohio have laid out rules for developers to limit the harmful effects of stormwater.

A Wetland At The Edge Of A Parking Lot

At Kent State University, Assistant Professor Lauren Kinsman-Costello and her research team stood at the lip of a wide basin dug into the ground near the edge of a parking lot. At the bottom: puddles and a lot of mud. Some geese and a duck showed up to paddle through a shallow pond.

Kinsman-Costello said this basin—and another like it just across the street—collect rainwater that runs out of storm drains on campus.

“Before any city or any or any buildings or any roads were here,” she said, “most of the water that would fall on the land would seep into pores in the soil, basically tiny little holes, and it would enter groundwater, and little by little, it would accumulate in streams.”

But today, parking lots, roads and buildings cover up that ground. The water needs somewhere to go, so it races through storm drains back into the environment. It can carry pollutants—like road salt and fertilizer—along for the ride.  

Human-made wetlands like this one can slow that process down. Kinsman-Costello said they’re meant to mimic natural wetlands, attracting plants and other organisms. Some parts of the basins will always contain water, while others will fill up when it rains.

“The hope is that not only will these basins provide some baseline flooding protection,” she said, “but they’ll provide some other benefits as well, some ecological and environmental benefits.”

This device helps researchers gather samples of water entering the wetland. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Kinsman-Costello and her team are studying how effective these human-made wetlands are at filtering out chemicals. They test water quality with a device that looks like a big plastic barrel.

“So underneath here, in this area, we’ll put 24 water bottles,” she said, opening latches on the barrel and removing the top section to show an empty space inside.

A small computer tells the device to collect samples when it rains. The team planned to lower it through a manhole into one of the pipes leading to the wetland.

The water flows from these wetlands into Kent’s municipal storm system. Eventually, it reaches the Cuyahoga River—just like most stormwater in this highly developed watershed.

“Anywhere along the river that’s close to an impervious surface, like a sidewalk or a parking lot, is going to be at risk of stormwater runoff issues,” Kinsman-Costello said.

The risk isn’t limited to chemicals, either. A sudden rush of stormwater can cause flooding and erosion. Bill Zawiski with the Ohio EPA said that can especially hurt smaller streams that feed the Cuyahoga.

“When you have all these stormwaters from parking lots and roofs entering a stream in a very short time following a rainfall event, it’s like a bulldozer running down that stream,” Zawiski said. “The water itself scours.”

On its way to the Cuyahoga River, Mud Brook flows between a housing development on the right and Sycamore Valley Golf Course on the left. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Reining In Stormwater At Mud Brook

Managing development and stormwater can be a political issue as well as an environmental one. It’s playing out right now not far from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where Mud Brook passes underneath Akron-Peninsula Road just before it connects with the Cuyahoga River.

Next door to the brook is Sycamore Valley Golf Course. Developers are proposing to build 143 townhomes there, right next to a floodplain.

The city of Cuyahoga Falls requires them to develop a plan to manage the stormwater that will run off the properties and into the brook. The city toughened those rules last month for developers working in Mud Brook and several other watersheds.

Sycamore Valley Golf Course sits on 28 acres off of Akron-Peninsula Road. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Greg Modic, one of the developers on the Villages at Sycamore project, said the team intends to comply with these new rules. They’ll build the townhomes outside and above the FEMA-designated floodplain, he said, and will build two big catch basins for stormwater.

“We’re really kind of capturing that water, choking it back, and letting it release at a much slower rate,” Modic said, “so the Mud Brook’s not experiencing that big gush of water all at once at it.”

Plans for the Villages at Sycamore development from April 25 of this year. [Donald G. Bohning & Associates]

The Mud Brook watershed covers nearly 30 square miles, stretching from Hudson south to the northern reaches of Akron. About 60 percent of the land there has been developed, according to the Ohio EPA. The agency considers the watershed “impaired,” saying that pollutants from combined sewer overflows and stormwater runoff threaten aquatic wildlife.

Many locals have showed up at public meetings to oppose the project. They said they’re worried about flooding and don’t want to further change what they see as the rural character of the valley.

A zoning change for the project passed earlier this year. But Councilman Russ Iona voted against it. He said the developer has followed the city’s requirements so far, but he’s concerned about the area’s history of flooding.

“So the whole area is low, and it’s been flooded,” Iona said. “You’re going to put more impervious surface to an area that’s been flooded. Logic tells me it could make it worse.”

It’s likely not the last time a city in Northeast Ohio will wrestle with what development and stormwater mean for the Cuyahoga River.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.