Between the ominous headlines detailing the California drought and the algae bloom that shut off Toledo's water last August, virtually every northeast Ohioan has wondered about our own water source. Sure, Lake Erie is plentiful, but is it clean and well managed?
The West Creek Conservancy (WCC) is a little-known organization that perhaps ironically, measures its progress in tiny steps backwards with the goal of reclaiming and restoring our water ecosystem.
"We took 100 years to develop over them, fill them, move them and trench them," says WCC's executive director Derek Schafer of our waterways. "It's going to take a while to reclaim them. And be a bit more expensive."
Founded 15 years ago with the intent of establishing an 80-acre greenspace around the West Creek in Parma, WCC handily achieved that goal and has since been expanding the project, which now covers some 350 acres. In 2006, the Metroparks took over the West Creek Reservation, but WCC continues the expansion with the aim of connecting it to the towpath at two locations, in Valley View and in Cuyahoga Heights.
Looking at a map of the burgeoning greenspace, the project may seem unevenly developed, but each intricate parcel is realized when time, planning and funds free it up to become a link in the thoughtful West Creek Stream Restoration and Greenway plan.
"We piece it all together," says Schafer, "parcel by parcel, acre by acre: back yards, side yards, right of ways, consolidations … "
The latest achievement consists of 10 acres that had been unsustainably developed years ago. Just east of the intersection of East Schaaf and Granger Roads in Independence, what is now a free flowing section of West Creek and its confluence with the Cuyahoga River, which holds up to 100 million gallons of water during flood conditions, formerly housed four acres of parking lot, a giant warehouse, a bank and tavern.
"This is such a cool point on the Cuyahoga," says Schafer of the unique riparian feature. "This was a landscape-changing project. We removed 84,000 yards of fill to provide the stream access to flood plane and wetlands. We put in 12,000 plants."
Partners on the project, which started in 2007 and has just wrapped up, included the City of Independence and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. While the space is not currently connected to any other green space, plans to eventually link it to the Towpath in neighboring Cuyahoga Heights and to the West Creek Reservation are in the works.
Meanwhile, the WCC has set its sites on a project further south that is inching closer and closer to a Towpath connection.
The Hemlock Creek Trail will eventually link Normandy High School in Parma all the way to the Towpath in Valley View. It's also a bit-by-bit long-range project, but later this year, WCC hopes to break ground on the section between the Towpath and Route 21 in Independence. The organization has raised $2 million of the $2.5 million price tag. Schafer estimates the work will take 18 months.
"This is a daunting trail plan," says Schafer of the Hemlock project, "but we're so close to making it happen. We've got about 80 percent of it bought up."
Future parts of the trail will include a section along Interstate 77 and an on-road section on Hillside Road. Other links are already in place.
While the WCC's primary focus is on the expansion of the West Creek Reservation, the organization has gained a reputation as a can-do behind-the-scenes entity that gets results when it comes to complex urban land acquisition and usage rights. To that end, the WCC has also acted as a landholder for projects years in the making and Schafer has lent his expertise to an array of area organizations.
For instance, LAND Studio enlisted Schafer several years ago to acquire a tricky acre surrounding industrial railroad for the Lake Link Trail, as well as aerial rights for an associated pedestrian bridge that's slated for installation at the press time of this article.
"Trail plans are great, but you have to have the acquisition, the restoration, the connection and the management," says Schafer. "You have to have awesome community partners," of which WCC has had too many to list, but they include area municipalities, the Metroparks, the NEORSD and a host of state and federal entities as well as private donors.
Other diverse projects on which WCC has partnered include the Kinsman Farm, which is an innovative urban agricultural endeavor, the historic Henninger House Restoration and the Treadway Creek Trail project, which connected Old Brooklyn to Cuyahoga Hts.
Tagging the West Creek along with the Rocky River, Mill Creek, Big Creek, Tinker's Creek and others, Schafer says, "We're impacting all these tributaries. Suburban and urban waterways all drain to the Cuyahoga and the Cuyahoga drains to Lake Erie." In the end, Mother Nature's original design is the best for this delicate ecosystem, despite our well-meaning (and often disastrous) efforts to alter it.
"Flooding is natural," notes Schafer. "We've made it unnatural. We've put our developments in the way of the waterways. We've really got to look at removing unsustainable development and letting our streams and rivers breathe."
"They need to breathe."