Understanding Urban Streams

Perhaps one of the most direct effects on the Cuyahoga River are the streams that contribute to it. Streams are considered as tributaries that flow into the river. The health and life of these streams are a significant reflection of the river itself, and studying them provides great insight on the river’s future.

The Cuyahoga River has a total of 26 tributaries. Garrett Blauch, a graduate from Kent State University who conducted his thesis on the research of urban streams, analyzed the health of several tributaries flowing into it. His findings showed that areas closer to the city of Cleveland had the highest percentage of imperviousness, 40 percent, and lacked the most amount of wood. These areas included Big Creek, located in the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Mill Creek which runs through Garfield Height’s Metroparks.

An urban stream is characterized by its location. It is a stream that coexists with urban development, and has been impacted by humans who live within its watershed.

A big issue concerning urban streams is how impervious they are compared to streams that flow through more natural areas. The urban development around these streams increases the amount of impervious surfaces. These include surfaces such as concrete and asphalt. These kind of surfaces do not allow water to infiltrate as easily as forrest ground or open fields. This becomes an issue when it rains or storm as the high amount of impervious surfaces causes stormwater to quickly raise the water level of the river, thus raising concerns of flooding.

In addition, the stormwater flushes out of the river much faster causing it to flush out beneficial economic assets to the river such as wood.

Wood is important to urban streams because it can improve its overall ecology. It can create pools which provide variability within the water. This in turn impacts fish habitats, creating an environment where they are more likely to thrive. Wood also creates a healthy flowing structure for urban streams Kent State Graduate Garrett explains,

“Wood provides structure. When you start getting wood accumulated together it provides a structure that can decrease energy that the fast flowing water is pushing on the stream channel. So you’re dissipating energy. You’re making it a little less erosive.”

Though despite their ability to provide a healthier river flow, the impervious surface level surrounding these streams causes the stormwater to completely wash wood out.

The world is continuously expanding its urban areas so we can only predict to expect growing impervious surface levels. However, many people in these neighborhoods are looking to attract a healthy natural river. So how can we get a natural river in an urban environment?

The answer may not be clear, though education is a start. Majority of people who interact with the river associate a nice looking river with a healthy river. An example being a young woman approaching Garret during his research suggesting the removal of the wood from streams.

This irony could represent the narrative of America’s environmental future. There is a growing need or want for a cleaner earth and a healthier environment, however there’s a continuous increase of urban development in many cities. Suburbs are beginning to look a lot like the cities we live in, and people are often more interested in what looks like a healthy environment rather than what makes a healthy environment.

It may take self-assessment and education to accept that the growing urban development though beneficial to our economy, is not entirely structured to be beneficial with our environment.

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