The landscape of downtown Kent, a sprawling suburban college town nestled between the urban city of Akron, numerous state preserves and parks, and vast rural croplands, speaks to its past as a center for manufacturing and business. In the center of town one can find a beautiful historic train station, converted into the iconic Treno Ristorante and overlooking once bustling but now seldom-used train tracks. Parallel to the tracks flows the Cuyahoga River, channeled through a retired granite lock formerly used to raise and lower ships carrying goods to and from local mills and factories to cities across Ohio and Pennsylvania. Many of the factories still stand, now utilized for retail space, art galleries, and bars, their aged brick exteriors lending a unique charm to this ever-changing town.
While the city of Kent now caters more to the college crowd rather than mills and manufacturers, it is still apparent that the proximity to the Cuyahoga offers great advantage to local residents. The canal locks are no longer in use, but the river provides valuable services, such as recreation and drinking water supply. Miles of park trails snake alongside the river providing enjoyment for people and habitats for native wildlife. Fishermen and kayakers can frequently be found navigating the water alongside large-mouth bass, bluegill, and even the occasional steel-head trout, once absent from the river due to heavy pollution which ultimately culminated in the infamous Cuyahoga River fires. The historic burning of the Cuyahoga demonstrates that, in spite our reliance on the services that the river provides, humans have not always paid respect to this invaluable resource. As we manipulate Ohio’s natural landscape in an attempt to adapt to societal changes, it is important to consider the impacts of human actions on local ecosystems and how we can best minimize deleterious effects. Kent and the Cuyahoga are only a microcosm of the myriad of aquatic ecosystems facing human-induced environmental threats.
Humans have progressively demonstrated an affinity for modifying the land to suit our needs, having modified one third to one half of Earth’s land surface. Rapid, poorly planned development often leads to draining and building atop wetlands, destroying and fragmenting wildlife habitats and eliminating the valuable ecological services they provide. Wetlands are often seen as expendable land suitable only for dumping waste and acting as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, but are crucial for water purification, wildlife habitat, flood protection, groundwater recharge, soil stabilization, and many other benefits.
In addition to the destruction of wetlands, urban development leads to the replacement of permeable soil and water-retaining ground cover with impervious materials such as concrete and asphalt. While this alteration of the natural water cycle may appear to be benign, there are dangerous repercussions. When water is unable to seep into the ground or be taken up by the roots of plants, the water must drain into storm sewers and local waterways. Impervious surfaces prevent water from percolating into the soil, causing the runoff to carry pollutants directly into waterways.
Fortunately, many aspects of waterways can be evaluated in order to gain insight into the health of an ecosystem. By monitoring the abundance of specific species that rely on an aquatic environment for survival, researchers are able to determine the impact of human-induced and natural factors. Aquatic macro invertebrates, or animals that live in water, lack a backbone, and can be seen with the naked eye, are excellent indicators of the condition of aquatic systems and can be used to establish correlation between land use and ecosystem health. Macro invertebrates are extremely common, are easy to collect and study, and have varying susceptibility to environmental factors, so the presence or absence of specific species and the number of different species present are evaluated to gauge the overall health of stream.
Organizations involved in conservation efforts often work in conjunction with dedicated volunteers and citizen scientists to play an important role in monitoring the health of aquatic systems. Water quality monitoring is crucial to identify changes in temperature, pH, and oxygen levels. A rise in water temperature has been shown to be detrimental to fish eggs and the growth of young fish, while also reducing macro invertebrate populations on which fish feed. Municipal wastewater and agricultural runoff can contain excess nutrients leading to a proliferation of algal blooms. The utilization of oxygen by decomposing algae causes “dead zones”, which lack oxygen sufficient for sustaining life.
While the issues affecting water quality are abundant, there is still hope. Many local organizations in Northeast Ohio are currently working diligently to assess and protect the health of local waterways. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) consists of three treatment plants responsible for collecting and cleaning 90 billion gallons of wastewater every year. NEORSD is a major player in evaluating local water quality and working to reduce harmful environmental impacts. One of the efforts of NEORSD is Project Clean Lake, which involves a 25 year, 3 billion dollar plan to reduce Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), or the discharge of untreated municipal wastewater and storm water runoff directly into the river and lake when the current infrastructure reaches maximum capacity.
A crucial step in protecting local waterways is involving the community in individual and collective actions to minimize negative impacts and help clean up polluted areas. Fortunately, there are numerous local organization allowing the opportunity for community members to be engaged in conservation and restoration projects. The Cleveland Metroparks Watershed Stewardship Center in Parma offers an array of volunteer opportunities and workshops that allow community members to practice citizen science through stream and species monitoring, learn about local watersheds and ecology, or brush up on sustainable practices around the home. The Watershed Stewardship Center also offers free programs for school children, providing valuable learning opportunities for the next generation of conservationists. For more information on upcoming events, visit www.clevelandmetroparks.com/
If you prefer to get outside and get active for the cause, then consider participating in the West Creek Conservancy’s Creatures in the Forest 5K Trail Run on Saturday, October 28th. Have fun with family and friends, run or walk through scenic terrain, and help to raise funds and awareness for the West Creek Conservancy’s efforts to create a Greener Greater Cleveland. The Conservancy works collaboratively with many local organizations to preserve and restore natural spaces and waterways and provide opportunities for community members to connect with nature. For more information on volunteer opportunities with the West Creek Conservancy or to register for the run, visit: http://westcreek.org.
Back home in Kent, my car currently sits atop the paved slope of my driveway. Should I happen to have a minor oil leak or choose to wash my car with a bucket of soapy water, these chemicals drip onto my driveway, ultimately to be swept away into a drainage pipe or seep into the groundwater with the next heavy rain. The accumulation of such seemingly minor environmental insults from millions of households and businesses can lead to devastating consequences, including algal blooms, dead zones, and toxicity to aquatic life. By simply going about our daily routines, we each inadvertently contribute to aquatic degradation. By understanding the role that each of our choices play in our local ecosystems we may better our practices to preserve species. In this time of turbulent climates, both natural and political, it is crucial that we all put forth conscious effort to make wise choices for the protection of our precious natural areas.
This article is provided by Amanda Fowler. Amanda Fowler is a Life Support Systems Technician for the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, working diligently as a part of the team responsible for maintaining the zoo’s aquatic exhibits. Through close daily monitoring of water quality parameters and multiple methods of mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration, Amanda has gained a deep understanding of the intricate biotic and abiotic components of aquatic ecosystems. This work informs and inspires a passion for water quality and conservation, the theme of Amanda’s Master’s work in biology through Miami University’s Advanced Inquiry Program. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Amanda has completed numerous projects throughout the program focusing on community education and water quality issues both in Ohio and in her current home state of California.