The Great Lakes are one of the largest freshwater systems in the world, accounting for 21% of the world’s surface freshwater and 84% of North America’s.
In the face of a changing climate, water is one of the most valuable resources in the world: As the importance of the Great Lakes becomes more apparent than ever, cities along their coast are playing an ever-growing role as stewards of the watersheds they inhabit.
In the last century decades of industry and aging water infrastructure have brought Cleveland and its watershed to more than one environmental precipice.
“If we go back to the 1960s — the bad ol’ days — we were dumping industrial pollutants down into pipes straight into the river,” Anne Jefferson, a professor of watershed hydrology at the University of Vermont (and formerly Kent State University), said.
Indeed, the Cuyahoga River has caught fire at least a dozen times from oil slicks lingering on the surface. After the fire of 1969, Cleveland decided it was time to turn things around. Led by their mayor Carl Stokes, the city championed a new approach to water pollution, spurring the historic Clean Water Act of 1972.
Point source pollution — or pollution from single origin points, such as river outlet pipes that can be traced back to specific factories — was the first major target of the new legislation. Decades later, its remaining pollutant counterpart is much harder to identify.
“What we’re left with now is what’s called ‘nonpoint source pollution,’” Jefferson said. “And that is hundreds of thousands of different homeowners and lots of different sources of pollution all coming in at different amounts at different times.”
Today, the region is facing increasingly complex challenges that demand complex solutions. Leaders in Northeast Ohio, however, are joining forces to find a way forward: The Watershed Stewardship Center in Parma, Ohio is a partnership between Cleveland Metroparks, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and West Creek Conservancy, and has been working for a decade to innovate ways to manage and mitigate nonpoint source pollution.
According to Derek Schafer, the executive director of West Creek Conservancy, watershed management is one of the most holistic approaches to restoring ecological integrity.
A watershed is the specific point to which an area’s rainfall will eventually drain. In urban areas, there are an increasing number of impervious surfaces that prevent water from naturally draining and therefore speed up the watershed process — potentially leading to floods and pollution.
At the Watershed Stewardship Center, the goal is to slow this process down again.
The center stands as a tangible emblem of the efforts being made to protect Cleveland’s water resources, and exhibits much of the green infrastructure they hope the city at large will incorporate: man-made wetlands to aid filtration; rain chains to slow runoff flow; porous concrete that soaks water into the soil below; and roof gardens that provide habitat as well as stormwater management.
A central part of the stewardship center is education, where visitors can interact with a topographic map of the watershed and experience stormwater’s life cycle. Visitors immerse themselves in the West Creek by observing aquariums of local fish species and find themselves in the sewers by walking into a huge simulated storm drain.
“We really are trying to flip the script and refer to Cleveland as the ‘Green City on the Blue Lake.’ No more are we the ‘Mistake on the Lake,’” Jennifer Grieser, director of natural resources at Cleveland Metroparks, said.
Finding a way forward in installing and managing green infrastructure sites has required the collaboration of businesses, residents and organizations across the region.
“You see such a cross-pollination of great public-private partnerships within the city of Cleveland and greater Cuyahoga County, Northeast Ohio, that have really come together with respect to watershed restoration and preservation,” Schafer said.
For instance, Grieser said that Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream, a staple of the city with nine locations, uses an underground cistern at its downtown location to recycle roof and sidewalk runoff for cleaning and plumbing purposes.
At a smaller scale, people can use rain barrels to sustain home gardens, position downspouts to drain into a natural area and plant more trees, Grieser said. Cleveland was once known as the “Forest City,” and Grieser said mature, growing trees do an especially good job absorbing stormwater.
Stormwater management is not just an ecological issue, however, as Ebony Hood, board member of the Environmental Education Council of Ohio and director of curriculum and strategic programming for Syatt, said. Hood said water access and water quality intersect with race, development and infrastructure.
As a child living on the southeast side of Cleveland, Hood said she remembers a huge tunnel project from the sewer district in her neighborhood, which at the time seemed very disruptive and confusing. But ultimately, more clean water in Lake Erie means cleaner, more affordable water for Clevelanders to use.
“Like it or not, we are one of the poorest large cities in the country,” Darnell Brown, president of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, said. “You do everything you can to figure out not only how to get the outcome you want, but how to do it in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.”
In the face of a changing climate, Hood said that protecting Cleveland’s globally important water resources is more urgent than ever.
“I think our climate crisis will have us on the edge of our seats,” Hood said. “So having a natural resource — we are privileged.”
This project was produced in partnership with Cleveland Metroparks, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and West Creek Conservancy.