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How flooding affects the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and vice versa
The center of the 33,000 acres acts as a sponge for Northeast Ohio

Dan Reyes from Brecksville prefers biking the Towpath Trail; while sections have closed recently (and temporarily) due to heavy rain, many bikers prefer the muddy ride through the CVNP
Courtesy of K. Bhatia
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In The Region:
As the mercury rises, so does the number of visitors to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Except, of course, when the park is flooded as it was last month. The park is affected by ever-more-frequent flooding in Northeast Ohio, but it also helps reduce the effects of those floods.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park was the 11th most-visited national park in the country last year. But this year, it was battered by rain for much of May.

Nearby, Silver Lake said it was the worst flooding in decades. Cuyahoga Falls lost half a million dollars’ worth of computer equipment at City Hall, and hundreds of homeowners there and in Stow reported damage. The heavy rains also flooded sections of the parks, scenic railroad and Towpath Trail.

“I’m pretty limited to where I can ride," says Dan Reyes of Brecksville. He does not like biking anywhere but the Towpath. “It’s always shady, I guess. There’s not too much sun. The weather seems like it’s always nice. I don’t know why. It’s relaxing just going by yourself.”

And even when the trail was washed out, many bikers still show up.

Messy floors
At the Peninsula Scenic Railroad stop, Carly Walker runs the Winking Lizard restaurant. She says after floods, business was down and the amount of mess, was up.

“We definitely see a lot less and you definitely notice by the bikers -- by what their backs look like -- what's going on on the bike trail.”

I asked her to elaborate.

“The debris from their back you can tell that it's all muddy. And you can tell by our chairs and our floors.”

And that’s likely to happen more often in the future, according to Kent State hydrology professor Anne Jefferson. She says the intensity and frequency of heavy rain will increase due to climate change, and that will require new methods to prevent flooding.

“Things like storm-water ponds, constructed wetlands, rain gardens, green roofs, bio-retention -- the idea is to basically reduce the amount of flow that enters the stream from parking lots and rooftops.”

My favorite sponge
The spring rains could have been much worse for Northeast Ohio if the Cuyahoga Valley National Park had not been there to soak up the moisture, says Park Service Division Chief Lisa Petit.

“Because of the Cuyahoga running through the primary area of the park -- the center of the park -- and all of the flood plains, wetlands especially, that are associated with the river, that actually can receive the water and act as a sponge for all of the water that is coming own from the various subwatersheds.”

That’s in areas where there are effective wetland systems in the park. But anywhere there’s a visitors’ center, storage shed or parking lot, she says, “all of that development [causes] some imperviousness: lack of the ability for the water to get though and be able to penetrate the ground. And that's where we have no sponge effect. And that's where we have the greatest problem.”

What if?
But it’s still better than it could be. If the park had been developed into a town, instead of being protected land, Prof. Jefferson says anyone living there would be at high-risk for frequent flooding.

“We would be looking at, probably, a big system of levees to protect those low developments. Basically, walls along the river to try and keep flood waters in the river and in the tributaries' streams and out of that development.”

And as the Parks Service’s Lisa Petit points out, levees can often fail. But she agrees with Jefferson that, regardless of the reasons for climate change, there is little that can be done to reverse the heavy rain trend. Going forward, the parks have been encouraging cities upstream to use more renewable and permeable surfaces in civic projects, to decrease runoff into the Cuyahoga.
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