Chagrin River:
Growing threats to a scenic river

The Chagrin is the blue-blooded river of Northeast Ohio. It had the good fortune to be located in a scenic valley just 15 miles or so east of downtown Clevelanda perfect spot for the country estates of Cleveland's wealthiest families. As a result, the river has been protected the old-fashioned way. Rich people bought the surrounding land and kept it undeveloped.

Forty-nine miles of the Chagrin have been declared a state scenic river characterized by exceptional aquatic habitat and surrounding forest land. Because it flows down from the snowbelt highlands, it takes on some of the steep, rocky traits of a mountain stream in western Pennsylvania. It is one of the only watersheds in Northeast Ohio to have some streams classified as "coldwater habitat" and able to support coldwater species such as trout. Other portions of the river and tributaries are "exceptional warm water habitats."

But today things are changing in the Chagrin Valley. Although some estates still survive and although the Cleveland Metroparks and private land trusts hold extensive stretches of the Chagrin, subdivisions are sprawling around the river and its tributary streams. One of the highest quality streams in the region is now being threatened.

Population in the Chagrin watershed increased 6.4 percent between 1980 and 1990, according to a study by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA). The construction of homes, roads and businesses increases the rate and amount of water flowing into the river during rains. The increased flow and heavier sediment loads stress aquatic organisms in the river and increase the threat of flooding. In addition, the removal of the cooling forest canopy elevates water temperatures. Cool water species like trout cannot tolerate the changes.

In 1990, the Ohio EPA conducted an intensive water quality and biological survey of the Chagrin. Here are some of the worrisome findings:

  • The East Branch's coldwater habitat status is seriously threatened by increasing suburban land uses in the watershed.
  • Elevated bacteria levels from untreated sewage are present in the East Branch near unsewered areas of Kirtland.
  • Bank stabilization and channel modifications along the East Branch are beginning to impair aquatic life.
  • Industrial discharge from the Ivex plant in Chagrin Falls has degraded habitat in the river's mainstem.

The insults to the river are getting more flagrant, as homeowners seek to build closer and closer to the stream. Several years ago, for example, a Chagrin Falls resident built a deck over the river (right over the water). Then, to protect the deck, he built two "deflector groins" upstream. The 30-foot long, stone groins stuck out at right angles from the river bank and diverted the flow of water.

Luckily, the Army Corps of Engineers found out that the homeowner did not obtain a dredge and fill permit before constructing the groins. So the Corps made him apply for one after the fact. As part of the review process, the Ohio EPA refused to grant a water quality certification for the permit. Agency staff members were concerned that the groins could cause deposition of sediment above the groins and increased scouring below. If people were allowed to install such structures wherever they wanted, the cumulative effects could alter the nature of the river.

But rivers in developing areas like the Chagrin must endure many other insults that are not reversed. In some respects, the high-quality streams suffer most because they have the most to lose. Small changes in the watershed have big water quality impacts.

"Streams like the Chagrin are fragile because they're so good," says Andy Vidra, an environmental planner at NOACA. "We're going to see a lot of changes out there."

He adds he is especially concerned about small tributary streams in developing areas. "The tributaries are the first to go because one subdivision can affect them&. And when you mess up the headwaters it's felt all the way downstream, as far as the fish communities are concerned."

Looking out for the Chagrin

Most of us think we live in cities and counties. But a growing number of people in Northeast Ohio are beginning to live in watersheds. They are recognizing that ecosystems often link people together in more fundamental ways than do the artificial political jurisdictions we humans impose on the landscape.

The latest example of emerging watershed identity in Northeast Ohio is the Chagrin River Watershed Partners. The partnership unites municipalities, government agencies, land trusts and citizens around a common agenda to protect the environmental health and scenic beauty of the Chagrin Valley. It will serve as a clearinghouse for information and help coordinate planning among the many players who have a stake in protecting the 267-square-mile watershed.

"To address our problems, it's become clear that we have to plan at the watershed level," says Richard Cochran, who helped organize the Partners.

Flooding is a growing problem in the watershed. As new development paves over woods and fields in upstream communities like Bainbridge and Aurora, the increased stormwater runoff has dramatically increased flooding in downstream communities like Eastlake. Erosion and sedimentation have made the formerly clear flowing river increasingly turbid.

Some developers are even building in floodplain wetlands, which not only destroys a valuable natural resource but places the homes at risk. At one Partners' meeting, Chagrin Falls Mayor Edward Towns described a flood that placed homes under construction in a neighboring community under two feet of water. The developer was confronted with videotaped evidence of the flooding, but he nevertheless went on to complete the homes and sell them to unsuspecting buyers. To prevent such unwise development, Towns said he hopes other communities in the watershed will follow Chagrin Falls' example and adopt setback ordinances that prevent new buildings from encroaching on the river and adjacent wetlands.

"We've got to cooperate on these issues," Towns said.

Since no one is elected to represent the watershed, a watershed-based citizens group can provide important leadership. The Chagrin River Partners joins a number of other local watershed organizations in the region, including the Grand River Partners and the Friends of the Crooked River, the group for the Cuyahoga.

They are examples of citizens taking greater responsibility for their home places. Nationally, the number of local river groups has soared from 700 to 3,000 in the past five years. A similar exponential increase has been experienced by land trustsnonprofit groups that preserve open space and natural areas through land purchase, conservation easements or other methods.

They are efforts by citizens to create new institutions that reflect ecological realities.



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