TransformSustainability agendaClean water › I Did It: Created a watershed group for Big Creek

Small acts for Big Creek

Bob Gardin wanted his landing in the Big Creek to make a splash for clean water in the cradle of the nation’s environmental movement. A tributary of the Cuyahoga River that runs through the zoo and in the shadow of the Innerbelt, Big Creek ‘drains’ parts of Cleveland and eight west side suburbs of Parma, Parma Heights, Brooklyn, Brook Park, Linndale, Middleburg Heights, and North Royalton. It contains over 130 miles of streams and culverts, but how many of the thousands of residents there know about it?

Big Creek and stone bridge<br />(Images from Friends of Big Creek)Steep slope in Big Creek<br />Big Creek watershed map<br />Big Creek wetlands project<br />Friends of Big Creek and the Cleveland Metroparks will create stormwater wetlands (purple circles) in the Big Creek Parkway

In 2004, Gardin struck up a conversation with Cleveland Councilman Brian Cummins and Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization director Jim White. He had just vacated his board chair at the grassroots Cleveland Waterfront Coalition, and had become a member of the Cuyahoga River RAP Coordinating Committee. But he wanted to start a watershed group that would extend the work of the Cuyahoga in to Big Creek. Watershed groups form a mini-region that surround the watershed.

A watershed group represents a geographical area based on the drainage basin of a stream, river or lake, Gardin says. Big Creek is the third largest tributary in the Cuyahoga River’s area of concern.

“So, there was a need,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is preserve and enhance the green space along the creek itself.”

Big Creek caught Gardin’s attention around the time another David v Goliath tale was taking shape: In Parma’s West Creek, a little known waterway hidden in one of the last remnants of green space there. Like Gardin, a few scrappy locals were working hard to establish a park corridor and trail system around the creek. The eventual success of West Creek Conservancy opened the eyes of municipal leaders to the value of clean water and green space.

The recent pattern of land use in the Big Creek resembles much of built-out Cuyahoga County with little thought to the watersheds in their midst.

“We are the most urbanized tributary of the Cuyahoga that is still an open creek. We have about 38 square miles and 39% of it is impervious surface. So we get a lot of runoff and brownfield contamination issues.

Those kinds of challenges need out of the box solutions, he thought. Friends of Big Creek has been scrappy piecing projects together. For example, they upped their odds for a big state grant of $150,000 by convincing the Metroparks to build a wetlands project near its Big Creek Reservation. They preserved a 3-acre stretch of land behind homes on Biddulph and Tiedeman roads by fixing up and selling the home of a board member. Gardin’s resourcefulness has gained them attention with the big boys like West Creek and Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

“The first thing we knew we needed was some kind of watershed management plan to assess the creek,” says Gardin. “A model that many groups use is EPA’s 319 Action Plans, but those look at pollutant loads. Being so urbanized, we agreed it is not the best model. A balanced growth plan was a better model. It looks at land uses and how to preserve or create green space.”

It doesn’t sound like much, but for a little environmental group to gain the acceptance of Cleveland and four of its suburbs for a plan that prioritizes development zones where roads and utilities exist and that preserves land near small streams is practically a revelation.   

“It’s voluntary implementing the (balanced growth) plan, but the cities support it and it was endorsed by the state (of Ohio) in 2011. We work with city councils and administrations on legislation and riparian setbacks, zoning variances that respect the watershed, steep slope protections, and they are supporting our retrofit projects.”

Lately, Friends of Bike Creek has been focusing on acquiring property—to preserve green space in the ‘riparian‘ or stream corridor, and to retrofit big spaces with wetlands or permeable pavement. They identified 185 sites in the watershed that could be made more green, like big parking lots, and narrowed the list to three for intense study. So far, the Big Creek Metroparks site is the most visible success. The other two—around Ridgewood Lake in Parma and bioswales in General Motors’ huge employee parking lot—have broad buy in, if not funding.

Ridgewood Lake drains part of Parmatown Mall and acts as a detention basin to hold rain water before it enters the stream. Friends of Big Creek proposed taking out concrete walls and making a bioretention basin. The city ended up punting, citing costs to dredge sediments, while agreeing to look upstream at a golf course, proposing to build wetlands to slow the flow. It’s indicative of the challenges that every watershed group faces in taking good idea to implementation.

Still, in eight years, Gardin has taken Friends of Big Creek from an idea to a volunteer job to recognized by cities, the state and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which has provided funding for a part-time position for Gardin for the past four years. The organization was recently asked to lead Cleveland's Lower Big Creek Greenway Redevelopment and Restoration Plan.

The struggle to instill a culture that values water quality never ceases.

“It’s an ongoing challenge,” he admits. “There are other models throughout the country that we could be following, like doing parking lots so instead of the raised areas, can you lower those and do basins before it goes in to the storm drain?

“We play the role of watchdog, but it’s important to understand, in the long run, it will make the communities more sustainable. It takes more than just a watershed group. It takes cooperation and for cities to know they’re not alone.”

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