It’s no fun to find dead fish on your bedroom floor. Or bedding covered with gray slime after the flooding of a nearby creek has receded. And the smell. It’s always the same — musty and pungent — like the bodies of 100 decomposing crayfish.
Climate change is creating a problem with flash floods in cities across the nation. How is Cleveland prepared to handle it?
This summer, a number of cottage owners who often spend part of their summers in a private summer camp outside of Solon scrambled to find construction contractors to raise their cottages on additional cinder blocks or create other foundation solutions to keep their small seasonal dwellings safe from flooding.
Many of the family-owned cottages have experienced flooding in the area for generations. But certainly not every year and often only in the early spring, when melting ice jams made things worse. Vacationers have learned when they close up their cottages in the fall to remove most things off of the floor and take valuables with them.
But over the past several years, flooding has gotten much worse, occurring almost every year and, sometimes, more than once a year.
“We’ve seen increased rain events over the past decade, and the quick, heavy storms inundate sewer systems across Northeast Ohio, flood streets and streams and can cause flash flooding,” says Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, CEO of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). “In addition to addressing chronic flooding problems, the Regional Stormwater Management Program is uniquely positioned to rapidly respond to our member communities’ post-storm cleanup issues by removing debris and restoring stream flows.”
Unofficial speculation points to recent industrial development (think big parking lots and huge buildings) in the area with its creation of additional impervious surfaces that don’t absorb stormwater runoff, interference with Tinkers Creek and climate change.
“We do have changing rainfall patterns, there’s no doubt about it,” says Frank Greenland, director of watershed programs for NEORSD. “The wettest year on record in Cleveland was 2011, with 60 inches of rainfall. The second wettest was 2020, with 54 inches. This year, we are tracking about normal, but we’ll see. We still have a couple of months to go.”
Together, that volume, plus the “spikiness” of the rain (intensity in a short time), added to overburdened and aged culverts and sewage pipes that lead to streams and created, well, the perfect flood.
“Streams can only take it for so long and get beat up. They want to move. They do move. And they create problems,” says Greenland, whose division is responsible for about 476 miles of the region’s stormwater network, some of which is open and some which is culverted. “We want to prioritize and solve stormwater drainage problems in the areas we service.”
(Stormwater is rain, melting snow and ice that flows over land surface to sewers, lakes or streams.)
It’s not pleasant scraping dried mud off of walls, throwing out soggy couches or replacing rotting floorboards. But those cottage owners in southeast Cuyahoga County have yet to face the loss of life, injury and billions of property destruction other Northeast Ohio areas have suffered throughout the years.
Significant Northeast Ohio local flood years include: 1913 — The Flats were basically destroyed, along with the Ohio and Erie Canal; 1959 — Cleveland Metroparks Zoo lost its entire reptile collection to a Big Creek flood; and 1969 — a storm killed 41, damaged 10,000 businesses and homes and pretty much terrified everyone in Cleveland’s Edgewater Park who was watching July 4 fireworks.
Some water watchers add 2020 to that list. The National Weather Service called it a 1% flood, or a 100-year flood, meaning statistically, the flood has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. Last year, you needed a kayak in the Village of Valley View to navigate Canal Road, which was covered by high water.
Flooding is the most expensive natural disaster in Ohio and the U.S., according to Flood Factor, a resource tool developed by the nonprofit First Street Foundation. Flood Factor gives online users the opportunity to determine a home’s flood risk, which can be used in tandem with FEMA’s flood maps.
NEORSD, a quasi-governmental entity, launched its Regional Stormwater Management Program Master Plan in 2016. Four planning areas were identified: Cuyahoga River North; Cuyahoga River South; Rocky River; and Chagrin River and Lake Erie tributaries. The planning studies for the first three areas have been completed, and the fourth is scheduled to be finalized by the end of this year.
“We try to achieve what we call a 100-year level of service to prevent flooding. That’s a lofty goal and unachievable in many areas,” admits Greenland. “Because of the lay of the land and because Northeast Ohio was built out over a couple hundred years, we can’t reverse it in a year or two. It’s estimated that three or four of the master plans require more than $1 billion in needed construction to get to that 100-year level of service. And we’ll need additional money for the new Lake Erie plan.”
Greenland believes when the master plan began, it was easier to quickly identify “erosion of a hillside that led to flooding roads.” But now the NEORSD is facing projects on the $20-, $30- and $40-million scale, and he says, “we don’t have $40 million a year.”
NEORSD is funded by the communities it serves, an action that some local government officials still consider somewhat controversial. The regional utility district was initiated in 2013, halted by lawsuits, cleared by the Ohio Supreme Court in 2015 and resumed its programs in 2016. Thirteen Northeast Ohio communities did not initially support the funding action. That number has dwindled, says Greenland.
Twenty-five percent of fees collected from individual communities are also held by NEORSD and are earmarked for local stormwater management. Projects must be approved by NEORSD and can include such things as complying with regulations or educating residents about stormwater.
NEORSD also cooperates with the Ohio EPA, FEMA, Ohio Emergency Management Agency, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District and others to fight both rapid flooding events (including flash flooding) and slow-rising floods. FEMA has mapped about 2,777 square miles of flood hazard area in the state.
Being flooded by proposed projects (as well as water) is daunting, but Greenland says the last piece of the master plan will provide an overview of what must be done first in the area. Regional cooperation has also made a difference, he says, because “flooding in one community may have begun six communities away.
“Some people are flooding annually or several times a year. Their level of service is less than one year. We’d like to push that up to 10 years. That’s a big step,” says Greenland.
Urbanized areas with more impervious surface, which doesn’t absorb stormwater like a grassy or wooded area does, can cause many of the worst problems, says Greenland. He declined to say which communities have the most stormwater drainage concerns. But he did note “all of our drainage basins have these problems,” and “there isn’t a stream, including Doan Brook, Euclid Creek, Plum Creek or others, that shouldn’t be on the list for improvement.”
Matt Scharver, NEORSD’s deputy director of watershed programs, credits the organization’s “robust maintenance management program” for helping eliminate or lessen flooding in some areas. Regular removal of large woody debris and sediment along the stormwater network has allowed for more free flow, Scharver explains. That’s a “ big deal” when it comes to “high intensity, long duration rain events,” he says.
NEORSD also takes complaints from individuals and communities it serves if blockage of stormwater is observed. It’s better, of course, to clear the problem before an actual flood because high water will complicate getting rid of the problem and can be dangerous. NEORSD also attempts to eliminate problems using the most ecological-friendly solutions possible.
Jeff Jowett, NEORSD’s senior watershed team leader, reminds customers that stormwater fees are generally determined by the amount of impervious surface the property owner has. But 25% off of the stormwater fee can be achieved if single-family homeowners manage stormwater by including rain barrels or rain gardens on their land, removing impervious surfaces, disconnecting downspouts or averting that stormwater to a grassy or vegetated area. (Applications are online at neorsd.org.)
Of course, stormwater runoff and flooding don’t just cause water damage. They also carry pollutants to streams and lakes. That is particularly concerning in the city of Cleveland and some inner-ring suburbs that have combined sewers built around the turn of the 19th century. Both stormwater and sewage flow through the same culverts and pipes, complicating clean water efforts and adding to Lake Erie pollution. Road salt, fertilizers, car fluids, driveway sealants and more contribute to the toxins found in the region’s source of drinking water.
This summer, NEORSD completed the Doan Valley Storage Tunnel, a combined sewer tunnel designed to reduce pollution entering waterways. Located about 100 feet underground, the almost 2-mile-long tunnel is wide enough to accommodate a subway train. The $142.3 million project is the third of seven storage tunnels to be built as part of Project Clean Lake, beginning in 2010. The $135 million Westerly Storage Tunnel is expected to be completed in 2022. NEORSD says the tunnels will help reduce combined sewer overflows from 4.5 billion gallons to 500 million gallons annually by 2036. Combined with other Project Clean Lake endeavors, the effort will help prevent sewer backups and flooding.
What You Can Do
Picking up dog poop in your backyard can help Lake Erie. Really. So can refraining from dumping old gasoline from your lawn mower into the sewer and fertilizing your evergreens less or not at all.
“Even if you don’t live two blocks from the lake and live in southern suburbs like Strongsville or Parma, you can still have a connection to the lake and can make a difference,” says Amy Roskilly, conservation, education and communications manager for the Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District. “Everyone lives in a watershed, so eventually, everything that you do affects the rivers and Lake Erie.”
(A watershed is an area of land that separates flowing water into different basins, rivers or larger bodies of water.)
Roskilly says it is sometimes difficult getting people to be activists or even care about the quality of the oceans or lakes because “they just don’t understand how water moves in our environment,” she says.
“But if I can get them to care about their own property, that is enough, because the cumulative effect of that thinking about the runoff from their property will really help our lakes and not harm them,” says Roskilly.
She adds that too many people are willing to just blame their city for a clogged storm drain when “safely using a broom and a bucket” will just as easily eliminate the problem if it’s caught early enough.
“Cities will come by, sweep the streets and get rid of debris, but they don’t do it very often. Let’s see if the citizens of Northeast Ohio can give them a little help. It will help the streets from being flooded and keep roads open.”
And remember, stagnant, non-flowing water from blocked drainage areas also can cause proliferation of disease-carrying mosquitoes, which can lay eggs in just a tiny amount of water.