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Watch how sprawl transformed one watershed in Northeast Ohio

cuyahoga county land use changes
Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the decentralization of the county over the last six decades. Source: Cuyahoga County Planning Commission

A few months ago, I looked at the root causes of Northeast Ohio’s recent flooding problems. I placed the blame largely on two culprits – a changing climate and land use changes. The latter cause is particularly acute in Cuyahoga County, where the overall population has actually shrunk since 1948, while the amount of land developed has skyrocketed from 26% to more than 95%.

As I argued in the post,

Simply put, areas that follow sprawl-based development models are more likely to suffer from flooding problems. Sprawl increases the percentage of land area that is covered with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, and driveways. As the extent of impervious surfaces rises, so too does the amount of precipitation that winds up as surface runoff during storms. Forested areas are excellent at controlling stormwater; trees enable 50% of precipitation to infiltrate the soil and allow another 40% to return to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Urbanized areas, in contrast, drastically reduce the amount of water that can infiltrate into the soil, guaranteeing that 35-55% of precipitation ends up as runoff.

Well, earlier this week, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) posted a video that shows the profound changes that suburbanization has brought to just one of the region’s several watersheds. The video, which you can view below, traces the land use changes near the West Creek from 1951 to 2013. Whereas there is little, if any, development near the creek (which runs through parts of Parma, Seven Hills, and Brooklyn Heights) six decades ago, that has changed dramatically in the years since.

The video demonstrates the complexity of addressing environmental problems like water pollution, flooding, and harmful algal blooms. Each decision we make seems small and insignificant on its own. But, multiplied thousands of times by thousands of people over several years, it truly adds up to create a major challenge.

NEORSD and other utilities like it are struggling to adjust infrastructure from the mid-20th century to the realities of a 21st century world. Our wastewater systems were not built to handle a population spread out as widely as the one we find in Northeast Ohio, and acknowledging this problem is the first step to addressing it. This is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. supports efforts to address these root causes of our region’s water crises, as NEORSD has done. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say.