The Rocky River:
Our quiet river

The Rocky is the quiet river of Northeast Ohio. It's not a working, industrial river like the Cuyahoga or the Black. It's not as sheltered as the blue-blood Chagrin. It's not as wild as the Grand.

Instead it slips shyly between Cleveland's western suburbs from its headwaters in northern Medina County. It flows into Lake Erie, privately, through a yacht club.

The steep-walled Rocky River Valley once formed the natural boundary of urbanization west of Cleveland. But bridges erased the barrier. Now we drive over the valley in seconds, with scarcely a thought to the river below, a river that has carved a gorge through nearly 100 feet of shale and sandstone and glacial till.

It's a river of dramatic beauty and fragile ecological health.

Although there is little industry in the watershed, the river's water quality is degraded by inadequate sewage treatment and runoff from streets, lawns and construction sites. The Cleveland Metroparks protects a substantial part of the river's corridor, but the upper reaches of the river in Medina County, Columbia Township, Strongsville and North Royalton are pressured by rampant development.

Major problems

In 1992, the Ohio EPA conducted an intensive survey of the Rocky's water quality. Here are some findings from the report:

  • Despite improvements since 1981, practically none of the river's mainstem met water quality standards, primarily because of discharges from sewage treatment plants and urban runoff. Most of the East and West branches, however, met the state standards for warmwater habitat.
  • Sewage enrichment from the North Olmsted wastewater treatment plant was noticeable for 2.5 miles downstream.
  • Abram Creek was severely degraded because of inadequately treated waste from the Brook Park and Middleburg sewage plants.
  • The fish community of Baldwin Creek was poor because of effluent from the North Royalton B and Strongsville C sewage plants.
  • The species richness of the fish community of the East Branch declined downstream of the Medina 300 sewage plant in Hinckley Twp.
  • Reductions in phosphorus and ammonia loadings from the North Royalton A and Strongsville B sewage plants resulted in improved fish communities downstream from the plants in the East Branch.
  • A leachate collection system at the Montville Landfill tributary has improved the water quality of the West Branch since 1981.
  • Water quality and fish populations in the lower 4.8 miles of the West Branch were hurt by sewage effluent, possibly from Blodgett Creek, Plum Creek, and a tributary that receives flow from the Columbia Hills Trailer Park.
  • Failing home septic systems are polluting portions of the East Branch and Baldwin Creek.
  • Pollution from urban runoff could be an increasing problem in the watershed, especially in developing areas such as North Royalton and northern Medina County. Watershed planning is needed to minimize future impacts.

Sewer relief

In recent years, some of the worst sewage problems listed above have been eliminated by a new interceptor sewer (a regional sewer that conveys waste-water directly to a treatment plant and relieves overloaded municipal systems). The $163 million Southwest Interceptor of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) has permitted the decommissioning of four inadequate treatment plants-Brook Park, Middleburg Heights, Berea, and Strongsville A. Wastewater from those plants is now being diverted to NEORSD's Southerly Treatment Plant on the Cuyahoga River. Southerly is a giant plant with advanced treatment processes.

"The interceptor let them take out some really bad treatment plants," according to Dave Stroud, who monitors the river for Ohio EPA. "It's removing a lot of waste from the stream."

But the interceptor also is raising some interesting questions because it is diverting wastewater from the Rocky River watershed to the Cuyahoga. Some water quality experts are concerned that removing so much water (up to 15 percent of total flow in dry conditions) could cause other environmental problems.

"We don't know what's going to happen," said Stroud. "In the summer, the river could go lower than it has in recent memory, but there still should be enough deep pools for fish to survive."

Another question is whether the Abram Creek tributary will recover now that it is no longer being degraded by the Brook Park and Middleburg Heights treatment plants. The sewage could have masked underlying impacts from Hopkins Airport and NASA's Glenn Research Center. For example, Ohio EPA recommends analyzing fish downstream from NASA for mercury contamination (at one time NASA was the one of the largest purchasers of mercury in the free world and used the metal in space engine research). Also recommended is a study of airport de-icing operations to see if chemicals sprayed on planes are finding their way into the river. [Editor's note: A long stretch of Abram Creek is now being buried under the runways of Hopkins Airport.]

Dangers upstream

Now that some of the worst sewage problems have been reduced, water quality experts are turning their attention to the impacts of development on the Rocky's branches and tributary creeks. Erosion from construction sites is a major water quality problem, as sediment muddies the water and smothers the normally rocky bottom of streams.

During a tour of new subdivisions in North Royalton and Strongsville, staff members of the Cuyahoga County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) pointed out home sites where the ground has been bare and vulnerable to erosion for nearly two years. The SWCD is helping developers and city officials become more aware of such problems. In one demonstration project focusing on the East Branch of the Rocky, SWCD staff and researchers repeatedly seeded and mulched construction sites to minimize the time the ground lay uncovered by grass.

"By keeping the sites covered, we can dramatically reduce soil erosion and phosphorus runoff," said the Cuyahoga SWCD's Jim Storer. "And the repeated seedings are cheaper than cleaning up sediment problems later."

But even the best construction practices won't solve all water quality problems associated with development. Thousands of homes built to the edge of all the fragile, feeder streams of the Rocky cause tremendous ecological stress long after they are built-from the runoff of lawn chemicals, the altered topography and drainage patterns, and the many other impacts of urbanization. The problem is that regulations controlling development are more concerned with building codes than long-term environmental damage.

One condo development off Route 82 in North Royalton, for example, filled in a flood plain meadow. The earthmoving machines pushed dirt to the bank of a tributary creek of the East Branch. The condos were built just a few feet from the water's edge.

Now the creek threatens to wash away the foundations of several homes, and there are continuing erosion problems. Storer pointed out a downspout leading from a condo to within a couple of feet of the top of the stream bank. A gulley was already forming where the rainwater ran down the bank.

"In this case, the drain should be carried all the way down into the stream," Storer said. "Now it's carrying lots of soil away. We're talking tons."



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