Presented with support from:

GAR Foundation

By WKSU's Julie Grant

Friday, March 3, 2006

When the Cuyahoga River caught fire more than thirty-five years ago, much of the pollution could be pinpointed to industry. The federal government stepped in and created the Clean Water Act. Today, the river is threatened by many communities along the river. And it's up to local governments to respond. As part of the WKSU series, "Beyond the Limits: The Regional View,"

     


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Builder Bob Cohen near Geauga County property
(J.Grant)


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You can see the LaDue Reservoir from a new home in Geauga County
(J.Grant)


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Jim White, Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan
(J.Grant)


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ValleyView Mayor Randall Westfall
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Parking lots in ValleyView back up to the River
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Akron Watershed Manager Kim Coy
(J.Grant)

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Each time we wash our cars, fertilize our lawns, or even walk our dogs, there's a chance we've added nutrients to a nearby stream or river. Akron watershed superintendent Kim Coy says that when there's more nutrients flowing off the land, it means there's more algae growing in the water.

COY...THE MORE ALGAE THAT GROWS IN THE RIVER, THE MORE OF THOSE TASTE AND ODOR COMPOUNDS ARE RELEASED.

Coy says that's what happened to Akron's water supply in December and January, and normal water treatment would not remove those compounds.

COY... AND AS A WATER CUSTOMER, MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT GOING TO REALIZE THAT THE START OF A PROBLEM SUCH AS THAT STARTS ON THE LAND THAT DRAINS INTO THE RIVER, WAY UP IN THE UPPER REACHES OF THE UPPER CUYAHOGA WATERSHED.


Geauga County is home to the Upper Cuyahoga Watershed. It's long been a place of peaceful pastures, farmhouses, and forestland. But now it's also considered one of the fastest sprawling counties in the nation.

SOUND...CONSTRUCTION

Bob Cohen owns Bravo Homes. His company is building large, half-million dollar houses in the Auburn Township countryside. One neighborhood is emerging in what was a farm just a few years ago.

SOUND...Car tour

We drive up a gradual slope, amidst sugar maples and ponds. There are new 35-hundred square foot homes built on lots up to 20 acres. There's no municipal sewer system here, so each house has its own septic system. At a different site, he's building a large home with views of the Ladue Reservoir, one of three major holding area for Akron's water. He says there are five housing projects currently under construction in Auburn Township.

COHEN...EVERYTHING IS MOVING EAST. YA KNOW, SOLON IS PRETTY MUCH BUILT UP NOW. FIVE MILES EAST OF THAT IS BAINBRIDGE, AND THAT'S GETTING PRETTY CLOSE TO BEING BUILT UP. AND NOW THE NEXT BIG DEVELOPMENT AREA WILL BE AUBURN, AND THEN MANTUA. SO I THINK IN TEN YEARS, THIS IS ALL GOING TO BE FILLED UP.

The headwaters of the Cuyahoga River are to the east and north of Auburn Township. Those communities recognize that, and have started to work in anticipation of the coming sprawl.

SOUND...BERKSHIRE GROUP MEETING...

On this evening, leaders from Troy, Burton, and Claridon Townships are meeting to talk about a comprehensive land development plan. Mike Fath helped to start the Berkshire group. He says they formed because he believes township zoning laws don't help in the effort to keep new housing away from the river and its tributaries.

FATH...ZONING IS AS GOOD AT PREVENTING DEVELOPMENT AS A PIECE OF PAPER CAN STOP A BULLET. IT'S ALMOST TOTALLY USELESS, UNLESS YOU'VE GOT A GOOD COMPREHENSIVE PLAN IN PLACE WHERE YOU'VE ALREADY IDENTIFIED THOSE ISSUES IN ADVANCE, HAVE IT WRITTEN DOWN IN A DOCUMENT. AND THEN WHEN MR. WHOEVER WANTS TO COME IN AND PUT THESE HOUSES IN AND SAYS WE WANT TO DO THAT, YOU CAN PULL OUT THE DOCUMENT AND SAY, "NO YOU CAN'T BECAUSE OF THESE REASONS WHICH ARE COMPATIBLE WITH THE OHIO REVISED CODE." AND THEN YOU'VE GOT SOME DEFENSE. SO THAT'S WHAT WE'RE REALLY TRYING TO DO.

The Ohio Homebuilders Association thinks Fath and the Berkshire Group are just trying to limit affordable housing. But lots of governments around the Cuyahoga are trying to steer development away from the river corridor. In Kent, the city recently forced a developer to re-design plans, so his building project was more than 100 feet away from the riverbanks. New local regulations are largely in response to new requirements in the Clean Water Act.

ZAWISKI...IN OHIO, WATER QUALITY AS A WHOLE HAS TREMENDOUSLY IMPROVED FROM WHEN EPA WAS FIRST FORMED IN THE 70S, WE'VE SEEN MARKED IMPROVEMENTS.

Bill Zawiski is an environmental scientist in surface water with the Ohio EPA. When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in the late 1960s, it was the impetus for the Clean Water Act. In its first phase, Zawiski says the Act targeted big, obvious industrial dumping into the waterways. Today, he says there's no gross dumping of raw sewage or industrial wastewater into the Cuyahoga.

ZAWISKI...BUT THE LAND USE AND HOW WE DEVELOP AND UTILIZE OUR LAND, THOSE IMPACTS WE'RE REALLY STARTING TO SEE. SO, THE CONCERN IS, WE'VE SPENT ALL THIS MONEY ON SEWAGE TREATMENT AND INDUSTRIAL TREATMENT AND IT HAS REALLY IMPROVED THE WATER QUALITY. ARE WE GOING TO START SEEING THAT GO BACKWARDS NOW BECAUSE OUR USE OF THE LAND IS STARTING TO CAUSE IMPACTS.

As the river flows downstream, flooding is the number one issue in Summit County communities. Cindy Fink has worked with the Summit County Soil and Water Conservation District for twenty years. The parking lot behind her office in Cuyahoga Falls often floods because it was built in the River's floodplain, and a few years ago they started hearing from more and more residents.

FINK... THERE WAS JUST A CONCERN THAT NEW PROJECTS WERE BEING DEVELOPED, HOMEOWNERS WERE MOVING INTO PROPERTIES, THEY'D ONLY BE IN THE PROPERTY A YEAR OR TWO AND START EXPERIENCING PROBLEMS. FOLKS THAT NEVER EXPERIENCED PROBLEMS IN THE PAST WITH CONTINUED DEVELOPMENT IN A WATERSHED STARTING HAVING ISSUES WITH STREAM BANK MOVEMENT, EROSION ON THEIR PROPERTIES, SEPTIC SYSTEMS BEING EXPOSED. WE JUST FELT IT WAS TIME TO LOOK AT, WITH DEVELOPMENT, A BETTER WAY TO HELP PLAN.

Many Summit County communities are implementing regulations to steer development away from the river zone.

SOUND...Stream

Jim White is director of the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan. He's standing by a small stream that feeds into the River in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He explains that the natural streambed holds onto water much more effectively than flat, impervious surfaces.

WHITE...A DEEP FOREST HAS ENORMOUS FOREST CANOPY COVER DEEP TREE ROOTS AND WHAT'S CALLED A DUFF LAYER OF LEAVES AND TWIGS THAT CAN STORE AND HOLD AND ABSORB AN AWFUL LOT OF WATER. AS THAT'S REPLACED AS THOSE TREES ARE REMOVED AND DEVELOPMENT OCCURS, THE RUNOFF FACTORS ARE CHANGED.

If there's nothing to absorb the water, White says it moves more quickly, so there's little time for pollution sediments like lawn chemicals and motor oil to filter naturally. And that's why you might get something like Akron's algae bloom. Also, when there are big storms, like we've seen in recent years, there are more likely to be flash floods. Water that would normally soak into the ground is now running off rooftops and parking lots into the river. That increased flow can wind up destroying houses and other structures. Two people drowned in a Hudson basement a few years ago. In that case, White says there was a poor relationship between a flood-prone area and nearby development. Still, many political leaders are loath to interfere with any private property rights.

SOUND...DRIVING

Randall Westfall is mayor of ValleyView, a small village embedded into the deep ravines at the bottom of the Cuyahoga Valley. You pass over it on the I-480 bridge. Down below, Mayor Westfall shows off ValleyView's mix of commercial/industrial development along the Cuyahoga River floodplain. The area floods about once a year, but huge piles of dirt are being used to build up the land for new buildings and parking lots. While some people warn that impervious surfaces increase pollution running off into the water and the chances of flooding, Mayor Westfall is not concerned.

WESTFALL...WE, AS AN ENTITY AS SUCH, A MUNICIPALITY, THAT LIVES IN VALLEYVIEW, WE'RE NOT VERY MUCH TAKING AWAY FROM ANYTHING. THESE ARE THE TYPE OF THINGS THAT NEED TO BE DONE SO THAT WE CAN CONTINUE TO SUPPLEMENT OUR INDUSTRIAL BASE.

ValleyView is just one small village, but as every community does its own thing along the Cuyahoga River, it's death by a thousand cuts. The river collects runoff from 800 square miles of land from newly built houses along the headwater tributaries in Geauga County, offices built within the floodplain in Summit County, failing septic systems, parking lots, industrial and intensive paving all the way into Cleveland. But more communities and advocacy groups are starting to discuss their regional connections, to write laws, and to stop exporting their pollution up and downstream. I'm Julie Grant, 89-7, WKSU.


     

Web Resources

Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District

Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan