It all starts with rain. On a wooded lot, rain patters off the leaves and is soaked up by trees thirsty for moisture. Excess water finds its way to the nearest creek, which swells and floods, then gradually soaks into nearby wetlands.
Anyway that’s the plan nature intended.
But in cities, with their miles of roads and acres of roof-tops and parking lots, storm water takes a different course.
Storm drains carry away the water – and pollution - shed by all those hard surfaces. And when a storm is heavy, it can overload not only the sewers, but the small streams that run through many urban neighborhoods.
"What happens is that, instead of having that consistent ground flow into the stream, you have flash flooding," says Bob Gardin, project manager for Friends of Big Creek, a watershed planning group he founded in 2004.
Big Creek is the third largest tributary of the Cuyahoga River. Into it runs Stickney Creek In the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn, Gardin is walking through a neighborhood pocket of grassy, urban green space, toward this small stream.
"They mow all this grass, when in fact along the creek itself we prefer to see a buffer," he says. "You can see the kind of erosion it’s causing, by mowing to the edge, because we don’t have those deep roots holding in the soil."
Gardin points to the tangled roots of some big trees along the stream, now bared by erosion. He says he and the local landowners would like to create a nature trail along a more naturalized stream. New wetland plants would help channel storm water away from the surrounding subdivision, which is prone to flooding.
There’s no money yet for this project, but there are funds available from a new program at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District for small neighborhood projects like this one. The Sewer District’s Matt Scharver says over the last few years, there’s been a revolution in storm water management, something he calls green infrastructure.
"We’re truly focused on the green projects, better storm water management, innovative techniques," he says. "So we’re really hoping that this program pushes us forward, moving away from the pipe and pond engineered projects of the past."
Scharver says for bigger green storm water projects that impact more than one community, there’s a pot of about $35 million, to be spread over several years, collected from new storm water fees charged to homeowners and businesses.
At the Fern Hill Picnic Area in the Big Creek Reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks, one such project is already underway.
In the neighboring Big Creek community of Parma, a $150,000 project will divert storm water from a 36-inch pipe into a constructed wetland to slow the water and filter out pollutants.
Small projects making a big difference
The money for this project has another new source – the Ohio EPA’s Surface Water Improvement Fund, now in its third year. The new wetland will not only provide a home to visiting mallard ducks, it will divert storm water from 50 acres of residential neighborhood. Cleveland Metropark’s Jim Kastelic will manage the project. He says the new wetland will have big benefits for the nearby Cleveland Metropark Zoo.
"We wind up with a lot of storm water at the zoo from the Big Creek watershed. And we’ve had major floods over the last few years that have created some major economic issues for us."
This new wetland won’t be able to handle the volume of water produced by an intense or prolonged storm. So the Sewer District’s Matt Scharver says green infrastructure like this can’t replace the engineered storm water solutions -- including massive tunnels -- the agency is now constructing as part of its $3 billion project to prevent sewer overflows. But Scharver says small green projects can make a big difference to neighborhood flooding -- and be cost-effective.
Other parts of the country are out ahead of us on this, so we’re taking the lessons learned from them and applying them to Northeast Ohio," he says, "so that we can best utilize those dollars that we’re generating through the regional program."
Scharver hopes other Ohio communities will take a look at what’s happening in Big Creek and come up with their own plans to keep local flood waters at bay. It’s too early yet to be sure how effective these projects will be, but in cities like Toledo, they’ve been shown to work.
Karen Schaefer’s series on Northeast Ohio water quality - Drink, Fish, Swim – is supported by a grant from the Burning River Foundation.